Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Fruit of the Spirit: Love -- I Corinthians 13

Last week, we looked at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: 22-23. These are the characteristics which the Holy Spirit wants to duplicate in our lives, so we become living examples of Jesus on earth today. These characteristics are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Today, we look at the first of these --love.
It is no accident that Paul starts with love. Love holds the Trinity together. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally love each other. We are connected to Jesus by Christ’s love for us and our love for Christ. It is connective tissue of the Body of Christ.  Paul says that faith, hope and love exist, but love is most important. 
Today, I will answer three questions about love. 1. What do we love? 2. Who do we love? 3. How do we learn to love?
What is love? Jesus said we love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. These elements are not just true of our love for God, but of any love.  Love is a combination of feeling, thought, and action.
We love with our hearts when we feel empathy for another. Empathy is feeling what others are feeling. When another is happy, we are happy. When another is sad, we are sad. It’s the emotional aspect of love.
Jesus felt this perfectly. Isaiah 53: 4 tells us, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow.” On the Cross, Christ felt the sorrow of the whole world. He felt pity for those who crucified Him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” He wept with those who wept and laughed with those who laughed. When someone was abused or oppressed, He got angry. He felt what others felt to the degree that they felt it. 
We’re usually empathy-challenged. Some of us have more natural capacity for empathy than others. But we can all grow more empathic with others, if we will just make a habit of putting ourselves in the place of others. We need to pay attention to the feelings of others around us.
Empathy is risky and painful. But we can’t really love without sharing the pains and joys of others. If we cut ourselves off from the emotions of others, then we cannot really love.
We love with the mind, which means we use our brains to understand what others need, and what they are thinking. To love God, we must know God. To love another, we must know them as well. People are not all the same. Each person is unique and loving them has to be unique.  
Suppose a child asks you for a cookie. A cookie might make him happy, but it might not make him healthy. If we just give it, then we might be hurting the child by causing him to love cookies too much. We might even be undermining his parent’s authority who said, “No cookies!”
Suppose a beggar asks you for a handout. Our natural response might be to give it, but we don’t know the beggar. The beggar could use our money to buy drinks, drugs, or something else that could harm him or her. It would not be loving to give without taking the time to really know what that person needs.   
We live by our actions—with submission and sacrifice. Submission is allowing another person to have their way. Sacrifice is giving up what we like to give someone else what they like.
We are usually naturally selfish. If we sit in our living room, we’ll naturally take the most comfortable chair, and leave our spouses the rest. We’ll naturally turn the TV to our program, instead of what our spouses want to watch. If the dog wants in, then we wait for our spouses to let her in. If the garbage needs taking out, then we let someone else do it. 
But we complain, “I work hard all day. Why should I have to work when I get home?” What has your wife been doing all day?  Love is not keeping score of who does what, but it is sacrifice and submission. Love is not asking, “Have I done my share?” It is asking, “Is there more I can do to make her happy?” Love is constantly seeking ways of encouraging the well-being of others. 
Christ gave Himself for our redemption out of love on the cross. But more than that, He gave up heaven in His Incarnation, to live a life of trouble, and a life of sorrow on earth for our sake. He didn’t just die for us, He lived for us. If we want to love someone on earth, we don’t just die for them, we live for them. We devote ourselves to their happiness day in and day out. Love is a daily denial of our will and our comfort for the ones we love.
The second question is, who do we love? 
That’s easy—everyone.  We should love God and our brothers and sisters both literally in the family and figuratively in the church, along with our neighbors and fellow works. We are even told to love our strangers and even our enemies.
That’s hard to do! In fact, it’s impossible to ever get it right. After a lifetime of trying to fulfill the great commandment of love, we will still fail frequently. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We should constantly be trying to love more people and to love them more deeply. 
Even though there are so many people we should be loving, and there are always some we should love more than others. By loving these people, we learn to love everyone else. 
Here is the God-ordained order: love God first, those close to us second, and the stranger third. 
1 Corinthians 13 is called the “love” chapter. It’s Paul’s instructions on how to love each other. The most interesting thing that Paul shows us is that there is a priority in loving. It doesn’t address all love, but indicates that there is one kind of love which is most important to learn.
It does not really address the love of God.  Neither does it address the love of the stranger. It is mainly talking about the love of those within the Body of Christ and our family. 
Look at verses 1-2. 
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

If a person speaks in tongues, practices prophetic gifts, does miracles, or has an exhaustive knowledge of the Bible and theology, we would probably assume that they have a great relationship with God, right?  Maybe so, but Paul says it doesn’t matter. If we’ve spent our whole lives trying to love God and serve God, yet we don’t love others, it’s all useless. Something vital is missing in our love. If you go to church every Sunday, and jump up and down and sing, “Hallelujah!” you may love God, but you are nothing. You still have not loved others.

Verse 3--“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

You can work at the soup kitchen every week, give huge amounts of money to social agencies, and give your time to serve the poor and the needy, but if you don’t have love, then you’re nothing. You might think these things matter to God, but Paul says they don’t. It’s not what you do but who you are that matters.
Loving God and loving the poor are important and necessary, but it’s not what Paul is talking about in the love chapter. He’s talking about another kind of love that is vital to everything. It is described in verses 4-8:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

Paul is not describing our love for God. Who’s arrogant or rude to God?  Who can rejoice in wrongdoing with God? Neither is he speaking about the love of strangers which is expressed in our charity. We can’t be arrogant or rude to people we haven’t met. It’s only the people around us, the people we live with, that we can be callous or compassionate, patient or impatient. It’s the people right in front of us that make us or break us when it comes to showing love. These characteristics pertain to the way we treat people we know—our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends, the people in our church family, and the people we work with—these are the people who we should first show our love. 
When I was in college I met an anti-war protestor. He protested the war, because he thought stopping war was a loving thing to do, but hated his parents. Paul would say to him, “Your protest counts for nothing,” because he could not love people in his own home. I once knew a man who was a pro-life protestor, but he did some terrible things to his own children. How can we love a fetus we don’t know, but hate the child in front of us? We must first learn to love the people beside us before we can love the people beyond our vision.
Our third question is, how do we learn to love? 
We develop love by practicing on those closest to us. 
Suppose you want to get in shape. How do you do it?  You join a gym where you lift weights, get on the treadmill, and take Zumba classes. At first, it’s very hard, and you try to think of every excuse for not going to the gym.  But if you stick with it after a few weeks you’ll start to feel better. You’ll have more energy to work harder at work and play harder at home. 
Your home, work, school and church are God’s “love gym” for you.  It’s where you go to build your capacity to love God and love strangers. Like a workout at the gym, where you build your muscles through heavy resistance, our time at home with people closest to us are meet with the strongest resistance to love. By learning to love in our private arenas, we learn to love better in public. It’s not in the special activities we do, but in the normal everyday relationships where love is the hardest.  That’s where we learn what love really is. 
Love isn’t supposed to be easy. If you find it easy to love the people around you, then start hanging around with people who challenge your capacity to love. Expand your circle of relationship to include people who are not like yourselves, and learn to know them and empathize with them. That is where we learn what love is really all about.
 Invite a crabby person to dinner. That’s how we develop our capacity to love

The Fruit of the Spirit: A Garden of Grace -- Galatians 5: 13-24

Today we are beginning a new series on the fruit of the Spirit. The “fruit of the Spirit” are a list of nine characteristics that Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-23--love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, meekness, and self-control.  These are contrasted with the “works of the flesh” mentioned in 5:19-21 sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.  This is not a comprehensive list. The works of the flesh are what we characteristically produce when we live for own worldly reasons, following our natural impulses and desires.  They are what we do when we act out what we feel like doing. 
The fruit of the Spirit are also character traits found in the life of Jesus.  Because He was without sin, He manifested them perfectly.  He was loving, joyful, peaceful and patient at all times, and so on through the list. 
Since the Holy Spirit is in us, these same nine qualities ought to be present in us, too.  The Holy Spirit will produce these same traits inside us through the act of spiritual renewal within. Like a virus inside us produces symptoms that help us diagnose a disease, the fruit of the Spirit inside us produce a set of good symptoms that help us know He is there.
We often see this dramatically when a person suddenly encounters Christ. They suddenly become more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, gentle, humble, and so forth. But mostly, these effects come slowly t our lives as the Holy Spirit manifests Christ’s character in us. 
So much I learned in Bible School.  But there’s more to the fruit of the Spirit than that. 
I think I’ve misunderstood what “fruit” is. We think of fruit as something that naturally grows on a tree. But the Greek word for fruit does not refer to where something grows, but whether it is edible.  Their word for “fruit” was karpos, derived from the word “to pick.”  If you didn’t pick and eat it, it’s not fruit. 
I used to imagine the fruit of the Spirit was this.  We are trees in God’s garden.  When the Spirit is in our lives, we naturally produce the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control, and all the others naturally and magically appeared, as we look to Jesus.  We don’t have to work at it.
But there’s a problem with this.  A lot of people in God’s garden aren’t producing much fruit of the Spirit. Religion seems to have made no difference in their attitudes.  They like coming to church, but they behave nothing like Jesus.  How can the people of (for example) Westboro Baptist Church protest at the funerals of soldiers and insult gays on the street, and claim to believe the Bible? How can Christians support slavery, violence and immorality?  Where’s the fruit of the Spirit? How  we claim to  “love the Lord” when we don’t love anyone else? Why do so many Christians live in with fear, impatience, uncontrollable anger, arrogance, and contentious attitudes, yet claim to have the Holy Spirit?  They may be saved, but the fruit of the Spirit are not in them. 
Think of the fruit of the Spirit like this.  God invites us into His garden—a garden abounding with all kinds of good and wholesome things.  Among the many great gifts offered to us in this garden are the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest. It’s all there for the taking. But to have them, we must pick them.  New ways of thinking and feeling are offered to us, but we must take and eat. 
The fruit of the Spirit are gifts from God’s, but we must take and eat.  Fruit doesn’t fall from the tree into our mouths.  We must choose to take them.  They are a gift, but they are not a requirement. If we do not seek the fruit, they will not be evident in our lives.   
Let’s imagine a high school student who wants to join the varsity football team.  He is chosen to be on the starting lineup.  He is proud, and struts around school in his letter jacket.  Then they coach tells him to show up for the first practice.  “Practice?” he whines.  “No one told me I had to practice!”  What did he think he was chosen to do? Sit on the bench?
Yet many Christian seem to think they were chosen to be Christians but not act like Christians.  We are saved from more than just the fires of hell.  We are also saved from the works of the flesh to be changed through partaking of the fruit of the Spirit. 
In Galatians, Paul is writing against legalism. Legalism says that in order to have anything from God, we must earn it.  There was no love in this view.  It was all about having to prove oneself by keeping all the laws of the Old Testament. But the Bible says that it isn’t what we do that makes us good, but what God has done for us. Christ’s life given on the Cross gives us new life.  We don’t have to do anything to be loved by Jesus.  He just loves us.
But towards the end of Galatians Paul has to deal the opposite problem. Many people use God’s grace as an excuse for doing whatever they want.  They’re sure they are going to heaven, so that they think they can live like hell on earth.  Because they have accepted by God’s grace, there’s no need to practice Spiritual virtues. 
This sound like a very selfish, ungrateful way to live, but I do not want to give that impression.  Most people who live with the works of the flesh do not live that way because they want to, but because they do not think they have any choice.  Paul says they aren’t so much in rebellion but in bondage to the flesh.  He writes in Galatians 6 1 “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Remaining in bondage to our old habits and attitudes is slavery to Paul.
We are all recovering slaves--Some to despair, others to appetites, others to addictions, and still others anger or fear.  We say “I can’t help it,” but Paul doesn’t buy it.  We were made to overcome our flesh, not live under its control.
Don’t excuse sin by appealing to human nature.  Being in Christ means overcoming our human nature.  Don’t excuse temper by saying you have anger management issues, or adultery by claiming to have a high libido, or nastiness to others by claiming to have a personality disorder.  The point of the Spirit’s work in our lives is to transform our personalities into the personality of Christ. Jesus forgives sinners and sets them free from sin, but He never accepts our excuses.
 The life of the Spirit is a garden of possibilities.  Over the gate is written.  “Enter here, and become what you were always meant to be.” In the garden, are fruit trees with signs marked “Love,” “Joy”, “Peace”, “Patience,” “Kindness, ““Gentleness”, “Meekness”, and “Self-control.”  “All these qualities are yours” God says to us.  “But you must take and eat.  Incorporate them into your lives.  You have a choice—either sit in the garden and starve, or take and eat from the fruit God provides.
To take the fruit, we may have to stretch ourselves. We may even have to climb a few trees--but this is nothing. We no longer have to eat the rotten fruit of sin.  Now we can eat the fruit of grace.  But if we’re too lazy to reach for it, then the fruit of the Spirit will never be ours. 
The fruit of the Spirit does not change our lives all at once. You can’t take one bite of an apple or a banana and expect to be immediate health.  It is the habit of eating the right fruit and choosing them daily over junk food that produces a change in our lives.  The development of new habits which will change our personality forever. The fruit of the Spirit is both the instrument and the result of this second and far more difficult salvation.  This kind of salvation we must work out with fear and trembling.  The fruit of the Spirit are not usually grown in us overnight, but are the result of spiritual habits grown over a lifetime.
They are not just gifts--they are virtues.  They manifest themselves in our lives as the result of habits formed around God’s grace.  Over time, they cause us to look more and more like Jesus. 
We don’t just love; we must learn to love.  Love is the habitual turning from our own self-interest to pursue the interests of God and others.
We don’t just have joy, we take joy.  Joy is the habitual celebration of God’s grace in life and creation.  We daily choose joy over criticism and disappointment. 
We don’t just have peace, we make peace.  We choose to make a habit of keeping the world in perspective, so that we understand nothing we fight for on earth is all that important. 
We don’t just patience, we learn patience.  Patience is the habit of being still without strife, and being mindful of where we are now, instead of wishing we were somewhere else.
We don’t just have Kindness; we learn to act kindly to others.  Kindness is the habit of wishing and seeking the best for all who come across our path, even our enemies.
We aren’t just good, we practice goodness.  Goodness is the practice of seeking for uplifting things, not things that tear ourselves and others down. 
Were aren’t just faithful, we practice faithfulness.  Faithfulness is the habit of keeping our word and standing by what we say. 
We are just gentle, we practice gentleness.  Gentleness is the habit of treating other people with maximum grace and minimum judgment.
We don’t just have self-control, we practice self-control.  Self-control is listening to God more than we listen to our own inner voices. 
The fruit of the Spirit are not just gifts.  They are lifetime habits.  They do not come overnight, but through years of saying “no” to the flesh, and “yes” to the Spirit. 

God invites you into your own personal Garden of Grace, and invites you to eat of the fruit within.  But in order to eat that fruit, you must be willing to pick it.  Lay aside the rotten fruit of the flesh, and eat deeply of the fruit of the Spirit.  

Becoming Like Jesus -- I Peter 2: 1-9

There are two kinds of leaders—commanders and inspirers.  
Generals are commanders. Sergeants are inspirers. They are down among the troops. Scholars and professors give us plans and ideas.  Pastors and elders inspire. God gives them to the church to be examples. We need to be people who give themselves as an example. Paul said, “Be followers of me, even as I am a follower of Christ.” That’s a bold statement. How many of us would really be willing to hold ourselves up as an example of Christian virtue? Organizational leaders give us plans, strategies, and tactics. Inspirational leaders give us virtues and examples. If we have to choose between being commanding and inspiring, then we should choose to be inspiring every time. We need people who are willing to be commanders, but even more, we need those who will boldly lead by example.
Jesus both commands and inspires us. This is what Peter means in 2 Peter 2:3 when he says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.”  ESV says “excellence,” but the Greek word is literally “manliness” or “heavy lifting.”  A man is supposed to be a heavy lifter--a person who doesn’t shun hard work. Jesus is the heavy lifter of our burdens, so our yoke will be easy. Furthermore, He is the living example before us of how we should be heavy lifters in every situation. 
We become heavy lifters, by knowing Jesus.  Peter uses a different word for knowledge--an intimate, thorough knowledge. We don’t just what Jesus says. We know how He feels, thinks, and acts.  To have that kind of knowledge, we can’t just listen. We must also follow. 
You don’t know a man until you have followed in his footsteps. You can read all about Michael Jordan, but if you’ve never played basketball, you don’t know Michael Jordan. You can’t know war if you’ve never been in battle.  You can know all about Jesus, and read every page of the Gospels, but until you’ve tried to follow Him, you don’t know Him. We must know, feel, and act along with a person, beside him or her, if we want to be like them. 
Jesus is not calling us to sit on the sidelines of life reading His book. He wants us to imitate Him. That is the goal of Christian life—to be like Jesus in all things imitating Him in every way.
This is what Peter means in verse 4-- “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
To partake in the divine nature is called theosis--becoming godlike. To escape worldly corruption means more than just escaping hell. We escape from that by seeking in all ways to put on the image of Christ, receiving from Christ the Spirit of God to give us the power of becoming like Him.   
Peter goes into detail to explain how we cope, giving us an eight-step pattern for how we grow into the image of Christ.
 Begin with faith. Faith is our ultimate concern. It doesn’t mean just belief, but a reckless abandonment to following Him first. That’s what faith is. When we put or trust in Jesus and Jesus alone, when we make Him the goal of all of life, then that is the beginning, but by no means the end of our journey to be like Jesus.
Supplement your faith with virtue. Virtue is something we are willing to work at developing.  Many people think of virtues as either inborn or gifts of the Spirit. But these are neither inborn or gifts.  If we are loving, then it’s because we are working at being loving. If we are gentle, then it’s because we have committed ourselves to be like Jesus in gentleness. No virtue may be accomplished without work. No amount of faith will ever substitute for the pursuit or virtues. It is not something God does for us automatically. He expects us to work at being Christ-like.
“and virtue with knowledge.“   We start being virtuous through studying what virtue means. When we read the Greek philosophers and the Hebrew sages, we discover that while they may come to different conclusion, they all sound the same. They ask questions such as “What is good?” “What is truth?” “What is beauty?” Then they devote their lives to finding the answers. Without this search for knowledge, there is no real virtue. God doesn’t just put the right thing to do out in front of us always. He expects us to understand why what we do is right. Our choices are based upon our understanding. If we don’t understand why we do what we do, it’s no wonder we are always making the wrong choices.
“ and knowledge with self-control.”  Psychologists today call it “impulse control.” We prize and celebrate people who “do what comes naturally” or “tells it like it is.” But in truth, those are marks of spiritual immaturity, not maturity. The mature people realizes he or she always has a choice in speech and behavior. We can say what’s on our mind or we can hold our peace. We know when it is appropriate to complain and when it is important to shut up. We do not become addicted to things, but always have a choice about what to do with our passions. 
“and self-control with steadfastness.”   Steadfastness is not a good translation of this word. “Patience” is better. The person who is seeking to build Christian virtues must be patient. Expect delays. Expect setbacks. Don’t be thrown off because you haven’t yet overcome, or you haven’t yet won, but keep working and don’t give up. In our increasingly ADHD society, every little delay seems to set us off. But learning patience is important.  Someone once said, “The poor plan for Saturday Night. The rich plan for three generations.” The more we realize that progress is a long term goal, the more likely we are to achieve it.
“and steadfastness with piety.” ESV translates this “godliness” which is not exactly correct. It really means to piety. Piety is the ability to treat sacred and important things with important. It is a display of appropriate behavior at the right time. “Respect” might be a better term. Treat Godly things with respect. Don’t mistreat them. The opposite of respect is flippancy—treating everything as if it were a joke, or insisting in our own importance in the face of God. Respect is learning the obedience of the heart, not just the mind, but learning to honor those who need it. 
“and godliness with brotherly affection,” The word used here is “Philadelphia” (just like the city!)  it means the love we have for one another. Peter places the development of love for one another as coming before the love expressed to others beyond the family. It’s not that family love is more important or higher, but that brotherly love is a step towards developing Christ-like love. Christ went about healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons, but first he chose his disciples. If we ever in our pursuit of love for others come to neglect our love of our own family, then that love will collapse and we will fail Christ.
Kenneth Taylor wrote a best-selling book in the Sixties about revival called The Problem with Wineskins. In the sequel to that book A Second Touch, he wrote about some of the unfortunate impacts his book success had on his own family. One incident he recounts was what happened when he got serious about praying for the lost. One morning he was in his prayer closet praying for the lost when his children were getting ready for school. They wanted to kiss him goodbye when he heard his wife shush them. “Don’t bother him,” she said. “He’s in there praying so he can love the people downtown.”  The kids needed his love right then. If we reach out, but neglect brotherly love, then we are no more like Jesus than a salesman or business man who neglects his family for business.   
“and brotherly affection with love.” Loving the stranger is our ultimate goal, and comes out of our love for Jesus. When we come to the place that we are not just praying for the lost, but loving them, then we are truly becoming like Jesus. But it does not come until we have gone through all the other layers of obedience.
What if this doesn’t work?  Peter has something interesting to say about that in verse 8-9. 
For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.
Salvation from sin is the ground from which all these things spring. If we try to become like Jesus before we are loved by Jesus, then we are building on a false foundation.
I have a friend who is a sculptor. He can make a figure that looks exactly like a man from a lump of clay. But he cannot make that man live. It takes life to make him live. We can seek to have all the godly virtues we want, but if the forgiveness of Christ is not in us, then we are just lying to ourselves and to others. 

Do you know if you are saved from your sins? If you aren’t, then that’s where you start. If you have been saved, then keep working your salvation, and become like Jesus. 

Loving the Church -- Ephesians 4: 1-8

One Sunday morning Johnny’s mother knocked on the door of his bedroom. “Johnny, it’s time to go to church.”
“I’m not going,” Johnny said. 
“Why not?” she asked.
“Two reasons. The first is that I don’t like those people. The second is that they don’t like me.”
“You have to go,” she answered.
“Why?” Johnny demanded.
“Two reasons. The first is that you are forty years old. The second is that you are the pastor.”
This story isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. In one week I once heard three pastors or pastor’s wives tell me they loved Jesus, but they couldn’t stand His church. If that’s true with pastors and their families, how much more is it true with everyone else!
God doesn’t make a distinction between loving the church and loving His people. You can’t say, “I love Jesus” and not say, “I love the church” any more than you can say to your wife, “I love you, but I hate your body.” 
We love the church for two reasons.
First, because the church is where God lives on earth—not in the building, but in the people. To get close to Jesus we must get close to His people. It is the height of spiritual arrogance to think we can separate from this living temple and think it doesn’t affect our relationship with Him.
I remember my grandmother as a quiet, saintly woman with six hard-headed sons.  They would argue religion and politics at family reunions. I can still remember the look on Grandmother’s face when they did. Every insult they hurled at each other landed on her, because she loved them both. She hated seeing her children go at each other. 
How do you think God feels when Christians argue?  Debate and disagreement between Christians is healthy, but our hatred and abuse hurts God. God tells us to walk together in gentleness, humility, and patience. With God’s perfect empathy, it hurts Him greatly to see us hate each other.
The second reason we should love the Church is because God put us in it. We did not choose to be a part of the church. It  is not a voluntary association, but a state of being. Paul describes the “seven unities” of the church—one Body, one Spirit,  one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is over all. If we share the same God and the same Spirit, and the same Jesus, then we are already one family, whether or not we behave like it.  We don’t do church—we are the church. God put us in this peculiar family for His own purpose. We are called by God to be here.  
Suppose you work in a company run by your father, whom you love and trust. You think you should be a corporate executive, with your own privatd office and secretary. Instead, you father assigns you to the mail room.. If we trust him, then we will accept that this assignment is where He wants us to be. 
God does the same. We may think we deserve to work in places of respect and honor, but instead God puts us in places of obscurity, abuse, conflict, and frustration. He employs us as He sees fit. It may be that God has us here so we can learn something. We may not see a promotion until we go to heaven.  It may also be that He wants to use us where we are as messengers of love amid hatred and chaos in the church. Whatever the reason, God has called us to work with the rest of the church not against it. 
The church reminds me of a giant rock tumbler. It is a cylinder full of rocks and sand where we put stones to be polished. By constantly churching the tumbler over weeks,  having the rocks rub each other the wrong way, we are smoothed and perfected. To despise this occasionally abrasive environment is to despise sanctification. It is for our good that we are called to love the church.
The church is not a building or an organization. It’s people. We may disapprove or disagree with the organizational goal—that’s allowable. But if we despise the people in the church, then we have truly lost our way. God doesn’t dwell in organizations but in people. We mustn’t confuse the two. It s all right to support the people and disagree with the organizational church, but it is not all right to despise the people just so long as we support the organization. We must never allow the organization to be more important than the people.
Loving the church is both general and specific. We should support the people of God everywhere, but especially within our own tradition, denomination, and local church. Here’s how we do that.
We should all love the church universal.  Do not think because the church meets in different buildings,  has different names, practices different styles of worship, holds to different theological constructions,  and has different pastors that the seven unities of Ephesians 4 do not apply. We are brothers and sisters to every Christian church in town. As long as they hold to the apostolic doctrines of the faith—the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and salvation by Grace—they are our brothers and sisters. We may disagree with them, but we should do all we can to help them. 
Do not speak ill of other churches because we are speaking ill of Christ’s body. Who are we to judge the servants of another? We should do all we can to support other churches, and to assist them in their work. It is a terrible thing to hate what God loves. God is not pleased when we treat His children as something less than our brethren.
In this church, we should also specifically love Reformed and Presbyterian chuches. That is our branch of the Protestant church tradition. We belong to a branch of the church that goes back five hundred years. Sometmes that tradition has been wrong and foolish, but even so, we should not abuse or despise it. It has produced some of the greatest works of the church and some of the greatest saints. So many blessings our nation has received may be traced back to Presbyterian and Reformed theology and practice.  The US Constitution,  the Protestant work ethic, the rise of capitalism, modern method of Bible study, foreign missions, and so much of the roots of Western art and civilization may be directly traced to the writings of Reformed writers and thinkers.  Even now, our tradition grows in influence and provides a corrective to many of the superficial thinking we see in the church today.
Other traditions—Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal,  Catholic, and others—are also equally proud of their contributions. But this is the traditions that defines who we are, as other traditions define other churches. We are the bearers of our tradition and part of what it means to be Reformed in this modern age.
Specifically we love our denomination—the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Loving it does not mean that we always like or agree with it. Personally, I disagree with some of the things our church has said and done. But in love, total agreement is not required. I must respect those with whom I am working as people and as part of the Body of Christ. God put me here to love the ones around me.
This church is the product of the ARP church. These churches were the product of the denomination’s vision. It’s easy for us to forget that.  We are part of the ARP church, not just by doctrine or some chain of authority, but by love. Love is not abstract—it is specific. That is why we seek the denomination’s peace, purity, and prosperity.
Even moe specifically we must love the local church—in our case, Rogers Memorial Church.
How do we do that?
First, join it.  I often hear people say that church membership is not important. I disagree. Church membership is a commitment to a local group of Christians. It requires us to commit to a local body of believers.
If you think such a public commitment is not important, try applying that same logic to any other area of life. Would you say (for example), “I love that woman, but I don’t see why I should marry her?” or “I love that child, but why should I adopt her?” or “I want to go to war and fight, but why should I enlist?” or even “I love this country, but why should I become a citizen?” Every area of our lives requires that we make and keep commitments. We commit when we join a church to a local body of believers.
Second, support it. It’s foolish to think we can love the church and not give to it. It’s not that God or the church needs your money, its just that giving is the way we  remind ourselves that we love God’s church. Tithing is an expression of our love and faith, not our response to the churhes’ financial need. It’s the principle of first fruits—that God deserves our top consideration. If God doesn’t provide the money to keep the church going, then we should conclude that God does not want it to exist. All earthly things, even churches, must end sometime. But if we don’t surrender our first fruits to God, then our love for Him will grow cold. Supporting the church is our primary way of saying that God comes first, as we physically support and love His church.
Third, get involved with members in their lives. Working in the church is important, but more important is seekng to love our brothers and sisters.  Love is best expressed on a personal level. We must take responsibility to love members of this part of Christ’s body.  If we don’t, who will? 

In all this,  remember that our goal is to walk like Jesus walked among his people. If any disagree, then we disagree in love. If any agree, then we should agree in love for those who disagree. In  all things we should keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

The Five Angels of Christmas

The Christmas story is not just a story—it’s a narrative. A narrative is big story that has little stories nested in it. The Christmas narrative has five stories nested within it--Marys’ story, Joseph’s story, the birth of John the Baptist, the shepherds’ story, and the wise men’s story. Each of these stories has three common elements
(1)     They are about ordinary people living ordinary lives.
(2)     They all lead to finding Jesus.
(3)     These ordinary people find their way by the intervention of an angel.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos. It literally means “news bringer.”
We imagine angels as white robed figures with wings. We also are told that angels are people who’ve gone to heaven. Both of these statements are wrong. Angels don’t have any particular form, but appear in any form they wish. They are not departed spirits, when we die we become superior to angels. We are co-rulers with God. Angels are merely messenger boys.
An angel takes whatever form will best deliver a message to a particular individual. Angels appeared in five different ways to lead people to Jesus. Let’s take them in reverse order, starting with the wise men.
1         The Wise Men
The Wise men—also called magi--were priests of the Zoroastrian religion from Persia. They founded both astrology and modern astronomy. They believed that the stars were angels, sent by God to bring messages to earth.
Whatever the “star” or Christmas was, to the magi it was an angel. They discovered it through the scientific observation of the heavens, through their study of planetary movements.
The angel spoke to them through their intellectual study. This was the form that these pagan astrologers would recognize.
For the scholar, God reveals Himself in the working of heaven and earth. Psalm 8 says, “The heavens declare the glories of God, and His firmament displays His handiwork.”
Creation itself witnesses to those who will it the revelation of God in Christ. When we see the organization of the natural order, it speaks to us of the reality of God, we are looking at an angel.
The wise men were wrong in their belief in astrology, nevertheless, God met them where they were. God reached down to them and met them where they were. They did not reach up to God.
The same is true with us. The more we study, the more we know how little we know. But in the study, God reveals Himself to be true.

2         The Shepherds
The shepherds were very ordinary men, yet they were treated to the biggest light show in history—a multitude of the heavenly host.
When they saw it, they were terrified. They almost fell over dead from it.
To them the angels appeared as a terrifying vision. Why?  God didn’t have to scare them. 
Terrifying them was the point. These ordinary people were too busy and occupied with making a living to care about spiritual things. It took a good scare to get their eyes off sheep and onto God.
Terror has the effect of focusing our attention. When we undergo scares in life, it gets out attention, and we start to seek God. 
When we are scared, we sometimes wish an angel would come and rescue us. What we fail to recognize is that the very disaster we experience is the angel. The disaster is a message to us to pay attention to God.
God’s angels said, “Fear not. I bring good news.” What we think is bad news is often good news. It least us to Christ. Disasters, sicknesses, job loss, accidents, and so forth to force our attention on what is really important. Our disasters are angels to us, leading us to see beyond this world to something bigger.

3         Zechariah
The birth of John the Baptist is the prelude to the Christmas story. Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah was a priest, serving in the temple when an angel appeared to him there. When Zechariah had trouble believing the message, the angel prevented him from speaking until the baby was born.
Zechariah was born to work in the temple, and that is just where he found the angel. In his ordinary practice in the temple.
If we want to see an angel, then we need to go to where we worship God. Worship is the way we come before God, and give God his due. We don’t always get messages from God in worship, though we become a little more knowledgeable of His word. But God meets us where we look for him. We look for Him in church.
Zechariah did not believe the angel he saw in the temple, so God struck him mute until the baby was born. He really didn’t believe his eyes. When we are in God’s house, we should expect to see His angels there.

4         Joseph
The angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.  Joseph had a lot of dreams—twice afterwards God would speak to him in a dream.
We know little about Joseph, but we can piece together a few things. We know he was from Bethlehem, and people from Bethlehem were different from other people. They were born believing the Messiah might come for them. An idealistic man from Bethlehem, who loved God, and hoped for the coming Messiah would dream of one day being the father of the Messiah. Joseph lived in a world where he saw Roman injustice all around him.  He dreamed of the day when it would end. 
Joseph was a dreamer. Not all our dreams are from God, but just like our thoughts and our feelings, God can speak in our dreams. 
We live in a world where we are taught we should have vision and purpose. But our purposes are not God’s purposes. But God wants us to have purposes, nevertheless. God can use those purpose to make something great out of us. Our human purposes are sometimes the way God reveals Him to us.

5         Mary.
Mary’s visitation was unique. It did not come through logical study. It did not come with fear—she wasn’t afraid. She did not dream it, nor did she experience it as a religious vision. The angel just appeared. 
Mary was a little girl, probably only thirteen or fourteen. Yet she alone had the faith to believe without question and see God through the eyes of faith. 
Looking at these five stories of God’s angels, what do we learn? We learn that God meets us uniquely where we are.
This Christmas, Joy and I bought Christmas presents for all our friends and family. If we wanted to, we could have just given money or gift cards, and we wouldn’t have had to look. But where’s the fun in that?  Our goal was to buy something for each person that was unique to that person, some gift that would speak and be meaningful to them. The gift we give each one is chosen according to their needs and interests.
Christ came at Christmas as a gift for all. But the way Christ manifests that and applies that to our lives is uniquely fitted to each one of us. 
Christ doesn’t love us all the same. He loves us like we love those we care about. He loves us uniquely, specially and individually. He cares about us all as individuals, so he sends his angels to meet our individual needs.  

Why Jesus Came -- Matthew 1: 18-21

Matthew 1: 18-21

Last week we saw the Christmas story portrayed by our children, in the traditional Christmas pageant. Today, I want to tell you the ‘grown up” version of the story. Some of it you’ve probably never heard. I want to dispel some of the inaccuracies that have developed over the years. 
First, Jesus was born, not in 1 AD, but between four to eight years earlier than that. Herod the Great died in 4 BC so Jesus had to be born before that. Somebody made a mistake on the calendar and we have kept it ever since.
Second, it probably happened in the spring, not the winter. Shepherds abided in the fields in the spring not the winter. Third, Joseph was probably not a carpenter. The Greek word for carpenter is actually “builder.” Nazareth has few trees, but an awful lot of rocks. 
None of these details are very important. What is much more important to us is the fundamental misunderstanding the people of Jesus’ time had about who the Messiah was. Few (if any) understood the real reason why Jesus had to come to earth.
In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey marched into Judea to settle a dispute between two rivals for the throne. Under him Judea became part of the Roman Empire. He stole most of the gold and silver, took their children for slaves, and stole their land for retirement homes for his legions. The Jews hated the Romans and engaged in an armed guerilla struggle against them. The Jews believed (as ISIS believes today) that God was going to send a warrior leader who would destroy the Romans. The rebellions did not stop until 120 AD when the Jews were banned from the Holy Land, and did not return until 1947. 
The Jewish Messiah was a warrior leader who would come and rescue them. Every community of Jews thought the messiah would come from them.  Egyptian Jews thought He would come from Egypt. Galilean Jews looked to Nazareth. Judean Jews thought he would come from Bethlehem, since it was King David’s home. Though they disagreed with where He would be born, they all agreed He was coming like a Jewish Alexander the Great to take over the world.
It was in those days that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she would give birth to the Messiah.
When Mary told her family, it must have caused quite a stir. When Joseph found out, he was devastated. He started to break their engagement quietly. But before he could, he had a dream. In that dream, the same angel said:
"Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Did you catch that? He was coming to save them from their sins. This was not what anyone was expecting.
Does the world need saving today? If so, from what? People would answer that question differently—global warming, ISIS, political correctness, overpopulation, disease, crime, big business, or rampant technology. If you were to conduct a Gallup poll and ask that question, then I don’t think “our sins” would even rank in the top ten. We all think we know what’s wrong with the world, but we don’t include our sins among them. In fact, most of us would passionately argue today that our sins are not all that important. Which do we worry most about—dying in terrorist attacks, adultery, obesity, pride, or anger?  From which do we think we need protection—our sinful nature or other people’s sinful nature. People put locks on their doors, but they leave their own hearts unguarded. Worrying about our own individual lives seems strangely irrelevant in this messed-up world. 
The same was true back then. They worried about famine, disease, Romans, Parthians, Scythians, slavery, taxes--you name it!  If they had Facebook back then, these national concerns would dominate their posts. They hated the Romans, but it was their own sinful infighting that led to the Romans taking over. The Romans did not conquer Judea, they were invited! The sins of Judea led to its downfall.
The same is true in our lives. It’s our sins that mainly get us in trouble, and not those who sin against us. The worst things in the world reside in our hearts and minds. But of all the problems in the world the only biggest one that concerns God is our sins.  He was concerned about the Romans, but He didn’t send His son to save them from the Romans. He sent Him to save them from their own sins.   
Suppose a terrorist came into the church and started shooting. Of course I would be afraid. But if I were shot, the panic would only last for a moment, then I would have eternal peace in heaven. But what if I had sins weighing down on my conscience, and I had no peace with God. Then that bullet would send me into an eternity of darkness. Which one is worse—for some shooter to deprives me of a few more years of life, or a sin that deprives me of an eternity of happiness?  Yet we worry more about the shooter than the sin.
Which brings us more misery into our lives---global warming and terrorism, or overindulgence, sexual immorality, and drug and alcohol addiction?  Which causes us most grief—war on the other side of the world or our own domestic strife?  How can we say that terrorism and immigration are the greatest problems, when ordinary, everyday sins are the ones that cause the greatest misery?  It’s the little sins that create the most destruction. We are wanting to be saved from fear but we overlook the things in our lives that should really make us afraid.
God looked upon the people of First Century Judea and recognized that the problem was not who ran the country, but how the country was run. If Pompey the Great had been less pompous, they might not have resented his leadership. If the Romans had been less greedy and more considerate, then there might have been less resentment. If the Jews had been more tolerant of outsiders, or if they had been able to agree with themselves, then they may not have been a problem. If there had been less immorality, and more understanding, humility, and godliness in everyone, then the problems between the Jews and Romans might have had a more peaceful solution. But it was their individual sins which made others resentful. 
God’s words to Joseph show His priorities. Our sins are what we need to be saved from first. What’s more important—whether we steal or whether we are robbed?  What’s worse in God’s eyes—that we kill or that we be killed?  Whether we commit adultery or whether we have adultery committed against us?  Whether we wrong people or whether we are wronged?
The salvation of Christ begins with us. Only after we are saved, can we help save the world.  Jesus did not come to a perfect world. He came to a sinful world. He revealed himself to sinful people. The idea that Mary and Joseph were somehow sinless doesn’t sit well with me. They were sinners like everyone else. The miracle of the incarnation is that Jesus came in sinful flesh, not sinless flesh. He was born in an ordinary girl, not an extraordinary one. 
Christ is still coming in sinful flesh today—your sinful flesh. When we give our hearts to Christ and invite Him into our lives we are open at least to a new world of love and forgiveness. 
The Jews believed that there was only one way a person could be cleansed by sin. That was by sacrifice. When a lamb was placed on the altar in Jerusalem, the sinner could confess his sins over the lamb. There were two parts to the ritual—the confession and the killing.  Jesus was born to be the lamb of God. God provides the killing, in that Jesus was killed for our sins. Our part is the confession. By owning up to our sins, and confessing them before the Lord in prayer, we are forgiven for our sins.  Christ’s blood gives us that forgiveness once and for all.     
We don’t have to be perfect. We only have to be forgiven. We don’t have to be Christ, we only have to be open to Christ, and to let Him live in us and through us. 
It’s not the world we need saving from. It is ourselves. Salvation begins inside, in our heart, when we confess our sins before Jesus.

Here is a prayer of confession that comes from the Book of Common Worship:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

God’s word assures us that, “When we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

This is what Jesus came to do, to save us from our sins. Don’t let your sins destroy you. Give them to Jesus, receive His forgiveness, and be healed.

Do you Believe? -- I John 5: 1-5

John began his letter with this description of God: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” 1:5.  God’s light shines on us, and we reflect that light to the world. God’s light defines what it means to be a Christian. 
In the middle part of the letter, he describes the people who walk in the light. They obey God, the Father, and walk in love and obedience. 
In the final part of the letter, John describes the light itself. This light is what connects us with God, and which causes us to shine out to others. According to John, the thing that connects us is faith. If God is the source of light, and we are the recipients of that light, then faith is what carries that light to us. It is the quality in us that enables us to see that light, and it is the content of what we see when we look to the light. Faith is what connects us to God. 
Paul says this in Ephesians 2: 8-9, “For it is by grace though faith you have been saved, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God, not of your works so that no one can boast.” God’s grace come to us through our faith. Just as electricity comes to our homes through wires and trains and planes connect our cities, the commerce of our hearts with God travels through our capacity to believe.
What is faith?
In one sense, faith is first of all quality of the human heart which exists in everyone. No one is without faith, even if they claim to believe in nothing. We cannot exist without some kind of faith. It is the motivating factor behind all we say, act, do, and feel.  We can’t function without faith, even for a day. Faith is whatever gives reason to our existence.
But it is not enough just to have faith—we must have faith in something or someone. Faith is like riding in a car. You really can’t drive nowhere. You have to be headed somewhere. Faith must always have an object to function.
Faith is like a plug on an electrical appliance. That plug is absolutely necessary for the appliance to function, but it will do nothing unless it is plugged into the wall. Faith is the plug through which we plug into the power of God. It is useless without the power, but the power cannot function in our lives without the plug. The object of faith is whatever we draw on in our lives for power or direction.
Some people plug their faith into their own sense of self-worth. They believe in their own abilities but not much else. Other people plug their faith into the community around them, whether it is family, country, or racial identity.
The Christian faith is not faith in ourselves, our country, our political party, or our community. It is not even faith in the church. None of these, not even faith in the best that humanity has to offer, is good enough to power a Christian life. Our faith must be in Jesus. Only one faith enables us to say we are born of God—Faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ (Christ and Messiah are the same thing). If we believe in Jesus, then we are born of God. If we do not, then we are not born of God. 
So what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Christ?  Three things.
First, belief in Jesus as Christ is a statement of truth. To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe that Jesus was God, the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
Many people think this is unfair, both today and in Jesus’ day.  In our postmodern society, it is much more common to hear that we need to believe in something, and that it does not matter whether the basis for that belief is true or false. All that matters is that we believe.
We’ve all heard that, whether we notice it or not. It’s been part of our culture for years.
A man says, “I don’t think it matters whether you are Muslim, Jew, or Christian, just so long as you believe in something.”  Really?  Does it matter whether you are a Nazi, Isis, Or a member of the KKK?  These are specific belief systems, too. It’s intellectually lazy to think that the object of our belief, no matter how preposterous does not matter. 
The idea that truth is not important is preached in our movies, books, and plays. Postmodern philosophy, which is behind most of what we see in the media, holds that the truth of our faith is not important. In fact, in modern novels and movies such as Field of Dreams, The Life of Pi, Big Fish, and many others portray that lying is considered good, if it gives us something to believe in. A constant theme running through our society is that believing in a lie is as good as believing in the truth. 
It’s in our politics. We no longer talk or care about which side is right, but “shaping the narrative”—telling a lie so compelling that everyone will believe it. It’s in our science. The arguments about global warming, the health effects of illegal drugs, or homosexuality are not about actual scientific research, but who’s opinion shape the data. It’s in sports. Winning or losing is not nearly as important in sporting events as whether we look like winners or loser. It’s in religion, too. One well-known lady televangelist was once reported to have said, “Jesus is so wonderful—who cares if He’s real!”  
People are not asking anymore, “What’s true,” but “What can belief in something do for me?” 
Suppose you believe that guns will not harm you. So you put a loaded gun to your head and pull the trigger. Do you think you would be alive or dead? Does it matter whether you believe in guns when you are shot by them?  Suppose you believe in the resurrection of the dead and there is no resurrection?  Will you be dead or alive? Our beliefs are immaterial to the truth.  John says what we believe in is important, and what we should believe in is Jesus.
Truth matters. Reality matters. If Jesus is not who he says He was, then He is a liar.
C S Lewis argued that Jesus claimed to be God, and that people think of Him as a good man. Jesus cannot be both a good man and God. If He knew He was not God and claimed to be God, then He was a liar. If he was a man and was deluded into thinking He was God, then He was a madman. But if He was God and claimed to be God, we cannot call him just a good man.  If Jesus was not who He claimed to be, we should have nothing to do with Him. If Jesus was who He claimed to be, He should be the Lord of our lives.
Do Christians ever doubt that Jesus was God? Of course. A person who never doubts probably doesn’t think too deeply. But the historical evidence that Jesus was God is strong. Christianity is based upon belief in a real Jesus who really lived, really died, and really was resurrected.
Second, our belief is the basis for our behavior. John says that the way we know we love Him--that is, believe in Him—is that we obey him. Obedience is how we show ourselves what we love and believe. 
Suppose you believe that God supplies all your needs. But suppose you’re out of money. You see a chance to get some money by stealing it from someone else. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal.” Your actions should be clear--you don’t steal, but trust God to provide in another way. You either believe or you don’t. If you don’t’ act on it, then you don’t have faith.
You can’t separate your faith from your behavior. Real faith leads to obedience. False faith leads to disobedience.
Here is the difference between faith and belief. Belief is confined to the head. Faith involves the body. I might believe in ghosts, UFOs, or Bigfoot, but those beliefs make no difference in my behavior. I don’t dedicate my life to looking for them. But if I have faith in God, then every decision I make through the day, ever feeling I feel, every task I undertake in life is affected by that believe. I start each day asking, “God, what would you have me do?” Then I look for the answer. Faith in God is a lifestyle, not a whim.
Third, our belief is the basis for hope in our lives. Faith, John says, overcomes the world.
Many times we hope for things that don’t happen. But nothing happens for us without hope.  Hope may have disappointment, but lack of hope never leads to victory. Neither does hope in the wrong things. If I have faith that if I play the lottery every day I will eventually win the Power Ball jackpot, then I will likely be disappointed. Gambling is a false hope. If I think that I’ll suddenly be discovered by a Hollywood talent agent, that’s likely a false hope, too. But if I believe that Jesus can give me a better life through following His life and teachings, and spending time in prayer and Scripture, that is a hope that will not disappoint.
God doesn’t promise to take us out of our problems, but that we will overcome in our promise. He doesn’t remove us from the world, but that we will overcome in the world. Faith in Jesus is self-demonstrating. When we trust in Him, He leads us to a victorious life on this world.
But in order to know that victorious life, we must have faith. Faith involves risk. We trust and obey, in spite of our doubts.  In time, the fulfilled hope will strengthen our faith.
Do you remember the story of Jesus stilling the storm?  Jesus and his disciples were in a boat at sea. A storm arose that caused even the experienced fishermen in the boat to tremble with fear. Jesus calmed the storm, then rebuked them for their lack of faith.
We are often too hard on the disciples in these stories. Remember, they had followed and obeyed Jesus. They got in the boat and sailed out into dangerous weather. Most of us don’t have enough faith to get in the boat at all. We sit on the shore and criticize others, when we won’t even venture off our skeptical perches. Real faith in Jesus is throwing ourselves out there in belief, professing belief in Jesus, in spite of our doubts and fears. Real faith steps forward in Christian commitment, obeying when it’s hard, and being rewarded with hope and victory.
Belief that can overcome is belief founded in a real God.

Do you believe in Jesus? That’s the most important question that you can ever answer. Don’t let it remain a question in the back of your mind. Seek Him, until you find Him. 

What is Love? -- I John 4: 7-21

In this passage, John returns to one of his favorite subjects, love.
John isn’t talking about the love that is portrayed in the popular media or Christian culture.
For example, John probably wouldn’t understand our notion that love is a feeling. There is a feeling people often have when they are in love. But that’s really called affection, not love. There certainly should be feelings of sympathy and affection in love, but then that’s not love. A car has a radio, but that doesn’t make a radio a car. Love is bigger than affection. The idea of love as something we “feel” is unknown to him, and to the Bible.
If you are a parent, do you love your children?  Of course! Did you ever feel like strangling your kid? Probably! If you’re married, do you love your spouse?  Naturally!  Did you get angry with them?  Sure! Loving a person doesn’t mean we never get angry or disgusted. Love remains with us even when there are not feelings of affection.
We say that love is a choice. But if we choose to love, then we can choose not to love. If my love depended on me always making the right choices, then love becomes a burden quickly. Yet Jesus says our yoke is easy and our burden light. Love is not so much a choice as the reason we make choices.
A third mistake we make about love is to call only action. But just because we do for others, doesn’t mean we love them. Charity is good, but charity doesn’t prove love. Just because we are doing something that looks loving doesn’t mean it really is loving. Acts of charity are no proof of love. Paul said, “If I give away all I have, and even give my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”
So if love isn’t a feeling, or a choice, or an action, what is it?  Into what mental category does love fall.  Let me suggest that love is more than a feeling or a choice or an action. Love is something different. It is what people used to call a virtue. 
A virtue is a habit we intentionally develop to be more like God. It is a pattern of life and thought that governs forever the shape of our life and bends us forever to the Good. The opposite of a virtue is a vice. A vice is a bending or shaping of our life in the opposite direction. A virtue is something we cultivate and develop with God’s help over a long period of time. As we walk around every day, we are not aware of even possessing a virtue, since it just feels normal to us. But other people see it in us, because it is natural to us. It is something we try very hard to develop. It is a habit of thinking, feeling, and acting.
The fruit of the Spirit, spoken of in Galatians 5: 21-22 are such virtues. They are the virtues that are produced by the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. These fruit do not come automatically, but over time through the practice of being obedient to God’s word.   The fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Notice what comes first—love. They do not come just by prayer or just by some kind of Spiritual osmosis, but through the practice of doing what God commands in every situation. They are not feeling –how does a person feel faithfulness or self-control. They are choices we make, but they are also the reason we make those choices. They are aspects of Jesus’ personality that we seek to incorporate in our personality.
Let’s say a kid wants to be a basketball star. So he studies the life of Michael Jordan. He doesn’t copy everything Michael does, but he isolates certain aspects of his personality—his diligence, his perfectionism, his ability to come back after adversity. He tries to imitate those qualities that will make him a great basketball legend. Those qualities are Michael Jordan’s virtues.
Love is the virtue of Christ. Love is from God—it is God’s virtue. Everyone who loves is born of God, that means, he has allowed one of God’s virtues to be born in him. 
Loving as God loves is not natural to us—it is an unnatural act to us. But through prayer and obedience what at first is unnatural becomes natural.  Being loving becomes a healthy habit. A habit is something we do that feels like we were always supposed to do it. Once an act has been repeated a few times, then it starts to feel natural. In fact, it feels as if we have always done it that way.
Loving my family is a habit of the heart. When I don’t feel love for my kids, I still love because I always have. When I do something that makes my wife mad I feel guilty about it, because I have a habit of caring how she thinks. My whole personality is bent around supporting her and doing good for her. I don’t just feel love for my wife or choose lo love my wife. 
When a person says, “I don’t love my spouse anymore.” What they are really saying is this. “I have gotten out of the habit of loving my wife.” Habits that are not practices soon lose their power. But we can rebuild a habit in our lives quickly if we are willing to work at doing so.
But we have to have a reason to rebuild a habit of love. In the case of my wife, I have a good reason for keeping that habit going. My love for my wife is based on my relationship of my love to God, which is also a habit. If I quit practicing the habit of love to my wife, and God has told me to love her, then I am also breaking my habit of doing everything first because I love God. When I stop loving my wife I also stop loving God.  I can live without my wife, I cannot live without God.
What if I don’t show charity to my neighbor?  Showing charity to my neighbor is not just an act, it is habit I have developed in thought, feeling, and action. Again, it is an expression of the virtue of loving God. To become lazy in my charity is become lazy in my habits before God. To neglect loving my neighbors is to neglect loving God.
God commanded me to love, so I love. That means that whenever I have had to choose between doing something loving for God, my spouse, or for my kids I have chosen to love, so that love has become part of my nature. And obedience to God my purpose in life. 
In the old days, the church understood this. They used to write books about developing Christian virtues. Now they write books telling church people how they ought to feel. We hear sermons on how we are to get excited about the faith, how we should feel close to God at all times, how we should experience the joy of living. Guess what?  None of us experience Joy all the time. It is hard to imagine Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane expecting to receive a feeling of joy to replace the anxiety, or Christ on the Cross whistling, “I’ve God the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” He had pain. He had suffering. But he also had love in his heart.
How do you know if you love God?  If you have to ask the question, then you probably don’t. A true lover doesn’t sit around thinking of love. They are thinking about the other. They work, think, feel, and act for the benefit of the other, without being aware of it necessarily. They don’t think about love—they just love. They may have to think about love at first, but then it becomes so natural to them that they are not aware they are loving.
The Diary of Anne Frank is a well-known account of the life of a young Jewish girl who was hidden with her family by Christians during the Nazi occupation. After the war, when the book became famous. The Christians in the town who saved the Jewish people were asked about their heroism. They responded, “What heroism? We just did what anyone would.” They didn’t’ experience it as being brave, they just had developed the virtue of goodness until it became second nature to them. They could not imagine how decent people would act in any other way.  
When a person is honest, it never occurs to them to cheat. They couldn’t imagine how a person would be happy if they got ahead of another though deception. When a person is faithful, it never occurs to them to have an affair, since their orientation of life is to their spouse. When we love God, the thought of not going to church just doesn’t appeal to us. It is part of our nature to be in God’s house. Our love for God is just part of who we are.
What we need in the church is not more people feeling love, or even acting loving, but more people who habitually love God and others. This may seem unnatural at first, but only at first. Once we have developed the practice of loving, we will naturally do the loving thing even if they don’t feel like it.
The habit of love develops in several areas.
Emotionally, it involves the development of empathy or affection of others. Part of learning to love people is learning to like them as well. Think about coffee. No one naturally likes coffee. It as an acquired taste. But once it is acquired, then there’s nothing like a sweet cup of coffee in the morning. If we can learn to like coffee, then we can learn to like people who we are not naturally attracted to. There are few people in the world that we cannot learn to like or at least tolerate. And while empathy comes more naturally to some or others, there is no one that we cannot learn to at least emotionally appreciate.
In the choices, love is the habit of putting other people’s good above our own. This element of love involves trust, because it means we trust that God is looking out for our own interests while we look out for others. We don’t change that choice when we get frustrated or anxious, and say we made a mistake, without denying God’s provision at the same time.
This is particularly true in marriage. Once we have taken a vow before God, then the only way to love God is to keep that vow. We stay married in spite of how we feel. We have made a vow and the loving thing to do is to keep the promise we made.
In action, Love means doing what is best for others. That doesn’t mean doing what feels best to others, but what actually moves them forward towards flourishing. Sometimes that means making the person we love mad. We don’t love so we can be liked, but because God want us to seek their highest good.  It is not loving to let a leech continue to leech off people, nor is it loving to conceal another’s crimes. Sometimes love means letting a person walk away from you and never return.
“God is love.” God’s thoughts, actions, and feelings are bent in our direction. Sometimes we make him mad. Sometimes we displease Him. But this changes nothing. He still loves us, and is bending in our direction. Loving God is the same-- bending all we are in His direction.
One day I came back to my office after vacation. There on the ceiling I spotted a mushroom growing out of a spot of mildew. The mushroom had grown in a “u” shape, with the head up against the ceiling. Before I knocked it down, I asked myself why the mushroom didn’t grow straight down. There was something in the DNA of mushrooms that bend them into growing always upward. The mushroom didn’t think about it, it just grew that way. 

Love is just the same. We don’t think about it.  We just bend that way. 

Test the Spirits -- I John 4: 1-6

My roommate was a musician. Sometimes he would say, “The Lord gave me this song.”  I never could understand why, if the Lord gave him that song, it wasn’t so dull and repetitive. Surely the Lord could have given him a better song.
We should not confuse our voice with God’s voice. The Bible teaches that our reason, intellect, will, emotions, and even the impressions in our mind are affected by our sinful nature. There is still a lot of good in us, but it can’t save us completely from making mistakes or doing wrong.
The early church believed God spoke to them through apostles, teachers, and prophets. The apostles were with Jesus. Teachers taught the Bible and the words of the apostles. Prophets listened to God and spoke what God spoke to them. The apostles died out, but they left their words, so the teachers kept teaching it. Prophets and teachers remained. They spoke as the thought they heard from God, but original sin tainted what they said, and they could be wrong. This was the reason that they usually spoke in twos or three, and not alone. 
There was another problem, too.  False prophets and teachers started churches and ministries aimed at deception. They came among the flock looking for money, power, and sex. They used their influence to take what they wanted from the flock.
We still have the same problem today. This is why John wrote, “Believe not every Spirit but test the Spirits, to see whether they are from God.”
We use another word for testing the Spirits. We call it critical thinking.
Testing the spirits is not something we do by praying really hard. It is what we do when we hold up a subjective impression or proposed action against the objective reality of what God has already said.
We call the Bible the Canon. Canon means a plumb line, something we use to test the straightness of a wall. To test the Spirit, we don’t use feelings; we use our brain. We employ the same critical thinking we use to test everything else in our lives.
Suppose you buy a car. You don’t walk across a car lot praying for discernment. If you are smart, you will do your homework, and check out the gas mileage and resale values. We use our brains to test our hunches. We use critical thinking to test what car we buy, what food we eat, and where we go on vacation. It seems ridiculous not to. Why shouldn’t we also use critical thinking when it comes to finding God’s will in our lives about spiritual matters?
God may speak to our hearts through intuition, or He may not. But He has already spoken to us in two places.  First through the Bible. The authority of the Bible in our lives come from the authority of Jesus. Jesus gave the words of the Gospel. His disciples faithfully wrote them down. He promised that the Holy Spirit would lead the apostles to write down more. He also believed the Old Testament, saying not one dot of an “I” or cross of a “T” of revelation would disappear until it was no longer useful, but fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.  It provides the source of our knowledge for this world.
 Along with the Bible, He speaks through the person and work of Jesus. If you want to know how you ought to behave, then look at Jesus. If there’s something in your life that doesn’t match with Jesus, then you should change. Jesus is the model for our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. 
There’s more to believing that Jesus came in the flesh than just obeying Him. We also should believe in who he was and what He came to do. He is God’s only begotten Son who died for our sins. Faith in Him is the only way of salvation. 
False prophets with either add to or subtract from this. They either say, “You don’t really need Jesus. All you have to do is work hard and go to my church.” Or they add to the message by saying, “You need to believe in Jesus, be baptized, go to my church, have this experience, tithe, live a perfect life, etc. etc.” By the time they get through adding to what you need to be a believer, no one can be saved!
The Word and Jesus inform our decision making, and enable us to tell truth from error. What about questions such as who we should marry, what job we should take, or what church we should join? For those questions God expects to use critical thinking and our own intuition, informed by the Word of God and the person of Christ.
There are many people who would willingly and joyfully play the prophet in your life. They will freely give you the answers to all your questions. But they don’t know you, or the Spirit.  They give you advice, but they steal something from you while they are giving it. They are stealing your ability to think critically. They do not help you see the truth. They give you the truth—or at least, their version of it. In return, they gain a disciple to themselves.
There are also deceptive voices in your head, ready to give you the wrong answers.  A young man sees a pretty girl and something inside says, “She’s God’s will for you!” But is it right, or is it our own feelings? It’s our own feelings. 
That doesn’t mean its’ wrong. Just because our feelings or intuitions are not from God doesn’t mean they are wrong. God’s will is not a guessing game where there is only one right answer and everything else is wrong. God allows us freedom to create our own life, as long as our lives are in accordance with His word in Christ. If we make a very wrong answer, then He will let us know. If we make a mistake, he will correct us. But our intuition and feelings are not God’s voice. God’s voice comes from outside our heads, not inside it. It comes from Jesus and the Word of God, not from our personal intuition.
God uses our fallible and fallen flesh to reveal His good and perfect will, but it is still not to be trusted by itself. This is not unusual for Him. He spoke to Moses through the burning bush. He spoke to Baal though the mouth of a jackass, but that doesn’t mean the next time we have a spiritual question we should start listening to bushes and jackasses. We should trust the perfect Word, not imperfect feelings.
Jesus has come in the flesh. Divinity had taken on mortality. In this, He has shown us that God can reveal Himself to us through mortal means. Because He has come in the flesh, we can see Jesus through the means of flesh—through sound judgment and common sense. The problem with it is not that we don’t trust our minds, but we don’t trust them enough.
Philip Cary in his book Good News for Anxious Christians describes a common situation at Christian colleges. A young man believes it is God’s will that a girl he’s dating marries him. But the girl feels that it is God’s will that they should break up. Who’s right?  Cary says the young man is just being silly. Nowhere in the Word does it say that a particular boy should marry a particular girl, but only that they should marry Christians, and stay together for life. He is listening to his feelings, not to God. But the girl is doing something worse. She can’t say no without saying, “God says no.”  She thinks she has to have a spiritual reason for saying “no”—that her own judgment is not good enough. Unable to muster the strength to say what’s really in her heart, she must put it in spiritual terms.
There’s nothing wrong with this girl’s judgment. She just thinks there is. There’s nothing wrong with us deciding as long as that decision is not against the Word. God gave us the responsibility of using our best judgment. We are stewards of our minds. But not using our minds, and learning the skill of critical, rational thinking, as well as listening to our intuition is laziness, and a sin. God called us to serve Him not as puppets but as stewards. Critical thinking is stewardship of the mind.
The problem with most of us is not that we are mentally lazy. We expect God to do to the work of deciding for us. We need to develop sound judgment so we can tell true prophets from false prophets. We do this not based on our feelings, but on God’s Word in Christ.
How do we develop critical thinking? Here are some pointers:
First, know God’s Word. Don’t just think you know the Bible—know it! Read it on a daily basis. Many Christians know what people say about the Bible, but they don’t know the Bible. This makes them easy prey for false prophets, since all a false prophet has to do is quote a lot of Scripture and act like an authority. Don’t be fooled by this. Read it and study it yourself.
Second, study the experts. Study people who actually know what they are talking about. A true expert has devoted himself or herself to a serious theological and academic education. A true expert has the backing to prove what he says. He also has the humility to know what he doesn’t know. A true expert has trusted credentials. He didn’t get his expertise from Wikipedia or from an article he saw on Facebook. He went to school and earned his knowledge though years of study.
Third, ask questions. False prophets hate questions, because questions reveal what they don’t know. People who keep asking questions eventually get answers.
 One caveat though—question your questions. Just because you don’t get answered to your satisfaction doesn’t mean the other guy is wrong. It may mean that you may not understand the answers!  Real experts don’t take it personally when you disagree, but recognize the importance of open discussion and debate.
Fourth, listen to tradition. A friend of mine had once had this discussion with a man handing out religious literature. The man said, “I’ve found the Messiah! I was lost in sin and this man changed my life!  He’s the Son of God! And he’s living right her in Chicago, and his name is______!”
My friend answered.  “I’ve also found the messiah too, and His name is Jesus!  He not only changed my life, but the life of people for two thousand years!  He has stood the test of centuries, and His word has survived.  Tell me, how long has your Messiah been around?”
Tradition isn’t gospel. We can’t always trust the wisdom of the past, but we are bigger fools to casually throw it out. Tradition is how people of the past struggled with what they meant to say, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” It is the record of Spirit’s work in past generations.
Fifth, don’t take yourself too seriously, but accept your fallibility. Don’t beat yourself up when you get things wrong. We all do. Instead, correct your errors of thinking and go back to studying God’s word.
My mission is not to get you to agree with everything I say, or have you do everything the way I want it. It is to teach you the Word of God, and to get you using your brain. I think I’m right on most things, but I also know I’m surely wrong on some things. Don’t follow me, but to follow the Word of God. 

Jesus Christ has come in fallible flesh. We must use our judgment, formed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, to see though that veil of flesh and see God’s Son.