Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wholly SIngles Confrence 08 "The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing"

Wholly Singles Confrence 08“The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing
Matthew 22:34-40 & Mark 12:28-34

Just so you know some of my background and story, I grew up in Chattanooga. I attended Soddy Daisy High School and UT Chattanooga. I then left Chattanooga as a married person and went to Lexington, Kentucky to seminary where I received my Masters Degree. In the middle of seminary, my wife decided that being a Pastor’s wife was too much for her, so we divorced. So I left for graduate school a married man and returned divorced.

One of the first times it really dawned on me that I was divorced was when I went to the dentist office for my teeth cleaning. On the form, it asks: Relationship Status: Married, Single, Divorced. I thought about it for a second and I didn’t know what to pick. I was single and I had just thought of myself as single, I was also divorced, so which one did I pick. And, why did they need to know if I was divorced, shouldn’t single have said it all. Then I thought, what if they think less of me as a person because I am divorced or single. Then the thought crossed my mind, what happens if I get remarried, would I check divorced and married or would that confuse the desk clerk.

We live in a “couple’s world.” I think the whole time I was single between my divorce and getting remarried, lots of people in the church made it a point to get me married. It seems to me that somehow because of society’s expectations and the pressure we place on ourselves to get married, singles are oftentimes left with the impression that they are “less than” other people.

Sadly, when we look at the church, oftentimes we find that even in the church, our programming is really “couple driven.” This should seem odd to those of us who understand out Bibles because both Jesus and Paul held special places for those who chose to live the single life. He tells the Corinthians that he wishes they could be like him (in singleness), but due to their weaknesses, they can get married. Notice that Paul is saying that in this room, I am the one who is weak, not you all.

The question I want to look at this morning is this: “How can a single person, or anyone for that matter, have the best quality of life.” In two of the gospels, Jesus is asked a question, “What must one do to have eternal life?” Oftentimes, we interpret this to mean, “How can we go to heaven?” However, this question is deeper than just telling us about eternity. The word “eternal” can also mean “the best quality,” so that Jesus is being asked, “What can one do to have the best quality of life, both now and forever?”

Jesus tells the young man to obey the commandments and sell his possessions. Notice what Jesus does not say, “Go get married.” This morning I want to focus on the first piece of advice that Jesus gives the young man. What commandments must we follow to have the best life possible? Jesus later in his life is asked this very question.

The story is told in both Matthew and Mark. In both gospels Jesus is in the temple where he is being asked a series of questions so that the religious leaders could test his faith and maybe trap him into saying something they could use against him. The Pharisees (which was the religious group that stressed strict observance of the law, followed the whole of the Old Testament, and believed in the resurrection of the dead) asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus answered this question, one of the Sadducees (which was the religious group which took care of the temple, had a see no evil policy with Rome, only believed the first five books to be true of the Old Testament, and did not believe in a resurrection) asked Jesus a question about marriage in the afterlife. In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus gives another successful answer, these two groups get together, which was a miracle in itself, and ask Jesus which command is the greatest? In Mark’s gospel, the conversation actually turns good because Mark records a lawyer, after being truly impressed with Jesus, asks him which of the commandments are the greatest.
Just for informational purposes, this question was really not that random. It may have been like us asking a Bible scholar today which laws in the Old Testament still apply to us today. The religious leaders had been able to count 613 commandments in the Old Testament, which is quite a bit and obliviously some of these commandments were broken. They often wanted to know which were the most important so they would know which ones the HAD to obey and which ones they could skip out on.

Jesus answers the question by quoting two Old Testament passages. He says in Matthew, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” The gospel of Mark adds one phrase and that is also to love God with all your strength. In other words, Jesus says that the main thing is to love God and your neighbor because all of the Law and the Prophets hang on these two things. In Mark’s gospel the lawyer agrees with Jesus and compliments him on his answer.

Loving God

What does it mean to love God? Jesus was quoting from perhaps the most famous passage in the Old Testament. It is called the “Shema” and it was recited in Jewish prayers. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Four words: ‘Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength.” Eugene Peterson uses these words instead to help his readers understand the meaning of what Jesus is saying, “Passion, Prayer, Intelligence, and Energy.” Lets explore these one at a time.

Heart- Passion The Hebrew’s believed that the heart was the essence of a person and it was the place where all our emotions come from. Jesus said once that it was not what comes out of the month that made a person clean, it was what was in the heart. Out of our heart comes what we truly are. We must then love God with all of the emotions that we have inside us. I think this is why Peterson uses the word ‘passion.” Passion is what our true desires are so we have to love God with our passions.

There are several things I am passionate about. I love preaching. Being on this stage at this conference is an amazing opportunity for me. This is my passion. For me to love God with all my heart means that I cannot love preaching more than God. I have to love God and use my passion to show him my love. In our own lives we must ask ourselves, “Do we love God more than the things we love?” If not, Jesus is telling us that we will never have the best quality of live. However, when we can use our passions for God, then we will really get the best out of them.

Soul –Prayer The Hebrew word for “soul” is nephesh, which comes from the root of “breath.” When we breathe we are then alive and when we stop breathing, we have no more life in us. Sometimes we talk about the soul as being the part of us that will not die as opposed to the physical body. Peterson uses the word prayer I think to relate loving God with the spiritual part of our being. I would take this one step further and suggest that loving God with our souls means loving God with our actions because we love God with every breath we breathe. We love God with our emotions and our actions.

Mind-Intelligence We are to love God with our minds. I think this is often the most neglected part of how we love God. It is easy to see that our emotions and actions should love towards God, but we normally see intellect as a barrier to our faith. Instead we are told that our mind is a good thing and we need to love God by using our mind. After all, God gave us a brain so we ought to love God with it. So often I talk with people who attend church somewhere because they their friends go there and when I ask them what the church actually believes and teachers, they have no clue. When I tell them that the church actually teaching things they do not believe, they reply, “If you love God, it does not matter.” Jesus is telling us to stop checking our brains at the door. Love God with your mind.

Strength-Energy As you may have noticed, Deuteronomy uses “strength” instead of “mind” while Matthew uses “mind” instead of “strength” while Mark uses both. I have generally understood strength to be a summery of the other three by saying succinctly that we are to love God with everything we have.

Loving your Neighbor

Notice that Jesus continues on by added another Old Testament verse from Leviticus 19:18. It simply says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” Jesus is not making up something new, but he is tying together two threads that run throughout the whole Old Testament. Look at the 10 commandments for example. The first 5 commandments are about how to love God and the second are about how to treat other people. O often though, we try to divorce these two things. We either focus on loving God or forget to love our neighbor or we forget to love our neighbor as a response to our love for God. Later on John says that if we cannot love our neighbor who we can see, how can we love God who is unseen. The way Jesus bridges these two things together means that we cannot unconnected them. They are both the essence of our faith.

Loving Yourself

I want to add one more to this list that I think Jesus implies, but does not really say. He says that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, meaning that we must LOVE OURSELVES THE WAY THAT GOD LOVES US. I think this is perhaps the one thing that keeps us from having the life that God wants for us. The problem is that we believe that society is correct that somehow because we are single, divorced, widowed, a widower, that we are “less than.” When people tell us that we are not good enough, we take it to heart. When people tell us we are not smart enough or not good looking, or …..fill in the blank, we believe them. The problem is that we are believing a lie. This is not what God says about us. When God created the heavens and the earth, he said, “It is good.” When God created human beings in his own image, he said, “It is very good.” When God created you, he said, “It is very good.”

I am not trying to say that you and I have no flaws. We aren’t perfect. But, I am trying to tell us that despite the imperfections we have, God loves us and sent a savior to die on a cross for us. We are that valuable to God. If God loves you and I that much, we ought to look at ourselves in the mirror and understand that we are a child of God and we are worth something. If we believe we are loved by God, then we can love ourselves. If we love ourselves, we can love each other, and if we can love ourselves and each other, the people that we can see, then we can love God who is unseen.

In seminary, after my wife had left, I was feeling pretty bad. I thought that I needed to drop out of seminary and quit my job as a youth director because I was not worthy of that. Come to find out, you are never worthy in your own strength, only in the strength of God. I was walking to the library to try to study and thinking it was useless. The library was just outside the dorm, so I had to walk outside for about 30 seconds. When I did, I looked up and noticed it was snowing. As the snowflakes came down I heard a small voice saying, “Brian, I love you and I am going to take care of you.” It was that voice that reminded me to love myself because God loved me. It has kept me loving God because he loved me and it keeps me loving those around me because God loves all of you all too.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sermon 11/02/08 All Saints Day Sermom: Myth Busters Part Three "Hop- Along Religion"

Hop Along Religion

2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10

When I was younger I used to hate it when Tennessee would loose a football game. Obviously, I have had a touch football season this year. When Tennessee would be playing bad, I would always, immediately after the game go and play my Play Station Game on NCAA football and play the team that was playing Tennessee just so I could beat them. For some reason, this made me feel better.

In reality, I knew that my playing the Play Station game did not actually make Tennessee win, but if made me feel better knowing that they could have won in another world. This is kind of what atheists accuse Christians of when it comes to our belief in eternal life. Christopher Hitchens, in his book God is not Great, says that religion is “ultimately grounded in wish-thinking.” The argument can be laid out as follows,

1. People are scared of dying for two reasons. They do not know what will happen to them when they die and they do not want to loose loved ones when they die.
2. In order to have hope, people believe in eternal life to as a means of comfort.
3. Whish thinking does not make the thing itself true
4. Instead, we should live our lives to leave a legacy.

Hitchens and others would argue that people who believe in eternal life are like me playing the play station in order to have a different outcome than the one that occurs in reality. Instead, we should just own up to the truth that this life is all that we have, so we ought to make the most out of it.

I do understand the complaint that Hitchens is addressing. Sometimes in our belief in an afterlife, we too quickly neglect this life. I hear people make these statements all the time such as “This world is not my home, I am just passing through.” On one hand, I will admit that there is some truth in this statement, but without proper context, it appears that religion only teaches “escapism.” We only want to fly away and let the world go to hell. I want to suggest that this is NOT what the Bible had in mind when he talked about eternal life. Let me share Paul’s words to the Corinthians for you so we can put “This world is not my home, I am just passing through” into come context.

Paul writes,
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
This seems like a lot to digest, so let me suggest a way to understand this passage. Paul uses the word gar four times in this passage, in which we translate “for.” This is a conjunction that is used to give explanation. In this passage, Paul gives us four statements and then explains why he has made this statement.

First, in verse 16 he tells them not to loose heart, although physically they are wasting away due to persecution and hardships because they are being renewed. In verse 17 we see the “why?” Paul tells them that the momentary troubles they all are for an eternal glory that outweighs all their struggles. In this passage as in other places, Paul is convinced that hardships and sufferings in the life of a person produce something greater. Often Paul tells his readers that they produce the character of a person that God desires for all of us to have. He uses the phrase “eternal glory” in this passage, maybe to suggest that God will use trials in our lives to produce the character in us so that we will be fit for all that God has in store for us.

Next, Paul says that we are not to fix our eyes on what we can see, but rather what is unseen. He compares what we see with the temporal and what we cannot see with the eternal. Then he says this is because when our present body is destroyed, we will have waiting on us an eternal body. The image of a tent is important because many people traveled and used tents temporary homes. Paul uses this image to say that our body is like a tent that we will exchange for a permanent home.

Then Paul says that due to our temporary body we long for something more than what we presently have because we want to be clothed with our heavenly body. In other words, we are always wanting something more than what we presently have and we were created this way by God. So, why would God give us a body like we have that is incomplete? He does so to draw us to himself. Paul then says he even gives us his Spirit as a foretaste of what God has planned to give us at the end.

Finally Paul tells his readers that they are to please God no matter what state they are in, in the present body or in the future one because we must all appear before God and be accountable for our lives.

It is clear to me that Paul is in some way, affirming the belief that this world is not our home and we are traveling through. It seems that he is suggesting that the things in this life will not satisfy us completely and that we need to set our minds on eternal things. CS Lewis puts it like this,

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthy pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

Lewis, like Paul is not saying like so many people have in the past, that the things of this world are bad. Not at all, he is just saying they are here to give us a taste of what is waiting on us.

When I had only been here a short time, a member of PCS passed away and his family asked me to do the funeral. He was a Jewish man who was not active in the synagogue so First-Centenary was the closes thing he had to a church family. One of the things that became clear to me was that he liked to dance. In his funeral, I talked about his love for dancing and how dancing was a good thing. I then said that things like dancing gives us a foretaste of what true love and joy looks like in heaven.

I do not think it is a bad thing to have hope in eternal joy and happiness. I do believe as Christians, we can look forward to the moment when God will make our joy complete and we will be completely satisfied in God.

I also think it is important to understand that our hope in heaven should not cause us to want to escape this life. Paul is very clear that we have responsibility here and now. To really understand this passage we have to understand the broader argument Paul is making. The Corinthians are upset at him about a letter he sent to them that they found offensive. This was probably not the 1 Corinthian letter, but maybe one that was lost or perhaps it was added to the back end of 2 Corinthians in chapters 10-13.

Paul is actually defending his own character by saying that the letter he wrote, while it may have seemed mean was actually written in love to help them. While they may have thought he meant death, he meant it for life. He then talks about his own hardships in spreading the gospel and while he is suffering, God can take this and bring life. He uses the passage we read this morning to talk about how God is bringing life even thought they can’t see it.

What is important to know is that Paul’s hope in eternal life is not about giving up on this life. It actually makes this life more meaningful. Instead of living our lives to “leave a legacy,” are hope causes us to live to make the world a more meaningful place.

Sermon 10/26/08 Myth Biusters Part 2: The First Place Looser"

“The First Place Looser”

Mark 9:30-37

The second myth that I want to talk about today is the myth that Christians only believe in God because of their own selfishness. You may be wondering, if you are a Christian, how Christians can be accused of this, so let me explain the argument from Christopher Hitchen’s perspective in his book God is not Great. Here is the argument as best I can tell:

1. Revelation implies that God asserted his divine will directly to randomly selected individuals who then passed them on to those who were not selected.
2. Since all of these revelations are not the same, some of them must be false.
3. Religions fight and argue over which revelations are true and which ones are false
4. Thus, religions are used to give those who are victorious power over those who loose.
5. In the end, religion is just a wish projection of our own lust for power. Those who believe in god are selfish.

As a Christian, who believes very deeply in God and that God has revealed God-self to the world, I can understand why Hitchens sees religion as leading to selfishness and power. We would not have to look very far to see times and places where religion has been misused. If we were to go no further that Christianity, we see as early as the 4th century Christianity being used to bring power to those who are on the “inside.” One of the greatest tragedies in the church is the crusades where Christians killed Muslims in the name of God for control of the Holy Land. In our own country, Christianity was used to kill Native Americans and enslaves blacks. Again, it was used to give certain people power.

We do not have to look past the current election and see how people use religion to convinced people to vote a certain way. Not too long ago I went to a pray breakfast for a certain candidate and a preacher from our area got up and declared this candidate the next Moses and prophesied that he would win the election. It is too bad he was wrong. It is terrible that religion is used for power by both sides.

The good news is that Jesus never intended it to be this way. I love the story found in Mark 9:30-37,

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered over to human hands. He will be killed, and after three days he will rise." But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts his death three times and after each occasion, the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is talking about. Actually in Mark’s gospel they very seldom get it right. It seems that when Jesus speaks in parables they are always trying to understand them literally and when he gives them a straight forward teaching, they are looking for something else. In verses 30-33, Jesus tells them for the second time that he is going to be delivered over to people and be killed, but then he will ride in three days.

The first time Jesus announced his death; Peter took him aside and scolded him for saying that kind of thing. This time, the disciples decided to keep their mouth shut and keep walking. The next few verses though, explain that the disciples really did not get it. Apparently they were discussing or arguing about which one of them would be the greatest.

You may be wondering why they would be having this kind of conversation, so hopefully a little background will help. The Jews, of which Jesus and his disciples were, believed that God had chosen their nation and that he would come back through a savior or messiah and liberate them from Rome and rule the people again. The disciples believed that this messiah who would liberate the Jews and establish God kingdom as Jesus. Notice the language Jesus uses. He calls himself the “Son of Man,” which is a reference to a passage in Daniel that says the Son of Man will come in power and establish his kingdom.

Also, the Jews believed that when God’s kingdom was established, there would be a resurrection of all the dead who had lived righteous lives. The reason the disciples were so confused was because the Messiah, they thought, could not actually be killed and the resurrection would happen to all the dead, not just one person. Instead of wrestling with Jesus’ words, they tended to only focus on the part that gave them power. If Jesus was the Messiah and they were his followers, then surely they would have a very high place in this new kingdom.

The interesting thing about this passage is that the disciples were struggling with the very same thing that Hitchens accuses theist of. They had an idea in their head and despite what Jesus was saying to the contrary, they chose to believe it anyway. I am sure the words Jesus was telling them went against the very heart of what they were hoping for. They were hoping that by Jesus’ kingdom coming, they would be the ones who had gotten it right and they would be the ones who were great.

The problem with this is that Jesus had something radically different in mind. He sits down, taking the posture of a rabbi who is about to break it down to those listening and begins to explain the fundamental problem they are having. He then says, “Anyone who wants to be first has to be last and has to be a servant to all.” I am sure you could hear the air going out as the big headed dispels were deflated. Jesus then gives an example of this principle. He tells them that if they welcome a child, they welcome Jesus and they welcome God.

I realize that one tendency we all have is to want to be great. Honestly, I want to be the best preacher that I can be. I have imagined myself traveling all over the country preaching and teaching. I have thought about all the books I could write and all the money I can make. Selfishness is not just a religious problem, it is a human problem. I think atheists have this very same struggle.

The other day I asked myself this question: “Brian do you love preaching more than Jesus or do you love Jesus more then preaching?” The answer to this question is important because if I love preaching more than Jesus, I will only use Jesus to accomplish my goals. This is when religion is dangerous. However, if I love Jesus more than preaching, I will use my preaching to help other be connected to Jesus and make the word better for it.

I think all of us, who claim to believe in God must ask ourselves this kind of question. Do we love…….. more than Jesus? If we do, then we run the risk of using religion selfishly to benefit ourselves.