Sunday, March 18, 2018

Why the Cross? 1 Corinthians 1: 17-18

Why is the cross so important for Christians?

You all know the “Sunday School” answer.  Christ died for our sins. That’s true. Christ did die for our sins.
     But that isn’t the whole answer. Significance of the cross goes much farther than simply paying for our sins. Our understanding of the cross goes beyond it’s being the payment for our sins.

Let me offer an admittedly poor and inadequate illustration of what I’m saying. Imagine you and a friend have a quarrel, then you reconcile.  Your friend, to heal the relationship, invites you to Starbucks for coffee. He even pays for the coffee. At Starbucks, that’s a big deal!

Afterwards, you keep the coffee cup and put it on your shelf, as a memento of your friendship. Then every time you get together, you mention that coffee. You even make a little gold coffee cup to wear around your neck, to remind you of your friend’s generosity. After a while, this gets annoying.  He says, “Will you quit talking about the coffee cup? Let’s just be friends.”

Now, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins is a whole lot bigger than a cup of coffee. But even so, I don’t think God wants our relationship to Him to hyper-focus on what started that relationship.  Christ’s sacrifice was the door to that relationship, but our relationship is ongoing and deep.

But according to the New Testament and the witness of the church through the ages, the cross of Christ remains and should remain at the center of our relationship. If it were merely the door to our relationship, then why do we meditate so much upon it? Why does Paul write this in 1 Corinthians 1: 17-18?

  “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

How can the Cross be the power of God?  Something else is going on here other than just payment for our sins. It continues to have a significant place in our life with Jesus. What else was Jesus doing on the cross, and why does it continue to speak to us no matter how long we have been a Christian?  Why is it the very power of God?

The New Testament contains thirty-three references to the cross. Twenty-three are in the Gospels. The remaining ten references to the Cross are mainly in the writings of Paul. There are also many references to the death of Christ scattered throughout the Bible.  These references tell us much about what Jesus was doing on the cross. 

I cannot say today all that the Bible says about the significance of the cross. It would take too long. So, let’s focus on three meanings of the cross of Christ that affect our relationship with God.

1.  The Cross is the instrument of our healing.
One of the places that speaks the Bible speaks most clearly to Christ’s death Isaiah 53. Many Jewish rabbis suggested that it couldn’t be originally part of Isaiah, but that it was added or changed by Christians. When the Dead Sea Scrolls was found in 1947, archaeologists discovered an intact copy of Isaiah from before the time of Christ, and Isaiah 53 was there in its entirety. 

This chapter describes Jesus as the “suffering Servant” or Messiah. It describes Him suffering, and being afflicted for us. Pay attention to Isaiah 53: verses 4-5, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

In Hebrew, “griefs” and “sorrows” are literally the words for “pain” and “illnesses.” There is no distinction between Illnesses caused by sin and any other illness. Christ’s death on the cross is not just a covering for our sins, but healing for our pains and illnesses as well. 

How can Christ’s death heal us? This may seem strange to us, but it wasn’t to people in ancient times. They were in the divine right of kings. It was common belief that the Spirit of God was a king, and that “virtue” flowed out of him. In Roman times, people believed that even the sweat and spit of a king were medicinal. We see this in the Bible, in stories such as the woman with the issue of blood, and the blind man that Jesus heals by rubbing his spit in his eye. Christ’s healing miracles were an affirmation that He was the true King, the Messiah and a signs of His divinity. 

Consider this, if the spit of a king was treated as medicine, then what would the blood of the King of kings be? If the sweat of an ordinary mortal king was supposed to have power, then how much more power would be in the blood of the Messiah if He sacrificed His life for his subjects? The blood and the cross are symbols of Christ’s healing power! His blood poured out on the earth had the power to heal the earth. We hear this theme in the old hymns that says, “There is a fountain filled with blood,” “There’s power in the blood,” “The blood will never lose its power.” Christ’s death displays His ongoing power to heal us completely.

Please understand I’m not advocating faith healers. Jesus doesn’t promise us immediate healing or deliverance from every pain or hurt on earth. This is against His plan and we couldn’t handle it, anyway. We live in a world of hurt. Sometimes prayers of healing don’t get answered in earth, though all is healed in heaven. But knowing that Christ died for our healing assures us that He is on our side. Jesus could have stayed in heaven and watched us suffer from afar, but He took our pains upon Himself. He became the medicine to heal us.  He walks with us in our suffering when we are reconciled to Him. 
2. The cross is a sign of Christ’s humility towards us.

Jesus is our Lord he has ever right to demand our obedience. But He doesn’t. Instead, He became a friend to us, not a tyrant. He proved this on the cross.

There’s a wonderful passage in Philippians 2: 5-8, Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus was God, but He didn’t live like a god.  Instead, He humbled Himself as a servant. When He left earth, He did it by the means we all dread—death. We’d all like to be raptured, but most of us will die. Christ didn’t endure just any death, but one of the worst deaths anyone in His time could devise—crucifixion.  He could have called ten thousand angels to rescue Him, but he didn’t. If I were Jesus, I would have called down a heavenly helicopter and a full platoon of avenging angels! Christ displays humility that’s incomprehensible to me. He refused to impose His will even upon His captors. 

Christ shows this same humility towards us.  Humility is having rights, but not seeking them. It is being able to destroy the world, but allowing the world to destroy us instead. 

Christ does not demand our obedience, but He requests it. On the Cross, He shows us why we should give him obedience, because He already loves us and he humbled Himself to our level.

3.  The cross is an example of how to live. 

Matthew 16:24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”
In several passages,
Paul writes about the cross in many places in Galatians. But which cross does he write about—Christ’s or ours? Let’s see:

Galatians 5:11: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”

Galatians 6:12:It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

Galatians 6:14:But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Is Paul writing about the cross that Jesus was crucified on, or the cross He gives to us? I’m convinced that the “cross of Christ” is not the cross Jesus died on, but the cross we bear in His name.  Christ’s service to us is symbolized in the cross. Our service to Him is also symbolized by the cross. 

In Galatia, the new Christians lived in Jewish communities. The Jews would only accept them if they were circumcised and followed the Jewish law. The community pressure was for people to become good Jews and conform to the standards of the Jewish world around them, including separation from the world which they considered unclean. Not being circumcised was more painful to them than being circumcised, just as standing out in the crowd is more painful to us than having surgery. But this is our cross—obey God and be different. 

Paul is tempted to boast to the Galatians of all the things he has done. But instead he says this—if there is anything for him to be proud of in his life, (for that is what boasting is) it’s that he was willing to take up his cross. 

The cross is not just a symbol for Christians of what Christ has done, but also of what we are called to do, to be obedient to Him all the way if necessary to the crucifixion of the flesh.

In the Christian film Do You Believe, there’s a place where a minister is confronted by a street preacher, who asks if he believes in the cross of Christ. He says he does. Then the preacher asks if there is blood on his cross. He isn’t talking about Christ’s cross, but our own. Are we willing to sacrifice ourselves for the calling of God in Christ?  Are we willing to die for our faith in Jesus as our Lord and savior, and for his calling to love others? 

I have many crosses on the walls of my home and office. Most of them are very pretty. But the cross we must bear is not pretty. Christ’s cross was ugly and blood-stained, but God took that torture for you. He did it for your healing. He did it humbly. He did it for you to understand what true love means. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Outer Wall and The Inner Wall - Nehemiah 1

In 587 BC, the city of Jerusalem was torn down. God allowed this, because of sins and mistakes they had committed over hundreds of years. At the time, it seemed as if Israel was finished. The walls and houses were burned. Not one brick was left upon another. The city was plundered of all valuables.  The people were murdered, raped, sold into slavery. Those who remained were carried off as refugees to a foreign land. The whole nation was destroyed. 

Then, a full generation after this complete destruction God gave them a second chance. The book of Nehemiah tells the story of a group of exiles who returned to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was the leader of one of those groups.  His specific mission was to rebuild the walls of the city. 

So what does this have to do with us? Plenty!  The Book of Nehemiah is also an allegory of our own rebuilding after disaster. At one time or another everyone will endure a time of destruction. We may think it’ll never happen to us, but it will. We are never safe. Our sins and mistakes bring destruction on us the way it did in Israel. But after that destruction comes rebuilding. Even now God may be getting ready to rebuild your life.

Sometimes, destruction comes upon us, because of our sins and arrogance. Other times, it just comes, without us doing anything wrong. No matter how or why destruction comes, it always has a purpose. God must plow the field before He plants.  God must break up the old to plant the new. 

Nehemiah wasn’t a prophet--he was a butler.  Nehemiah quit job of butler to the king of Persia to serve as butler to the King of Kings. Being a butler taught him how to get out of the way and let the king lead.

One day while serving in the king’s palace Nehemiah was approached by a delegation of visitors from Jerusalem. He asked how the rebuilding was going. The news was grim. “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” Nehemiah 1:3

This was terrible. Instead of making a new Jerusalem, the new returnees were being defeated everywhere.

Christians in America are in a similar place. Our country was once a center of Spiritual awakening, but now Christians have lost their prominent place and influence in society. This has come about, because of our sins of pride and laziness. We took God for granted, assuming our will and God’s were sought power so we could rule in His name. We failed, and churches all around us are closing.  Christianity in America is nearing collapse.

Christians try to rebuild, but the walls are down. Morally, there is very little difference inside and outside the church that few can tell the difference. Divorce, premarital sex, and the consumerist mentality is just as predominant inside the church as outside. Non-Christians criticize our judgmentalism and lack to love, and there is validity in their complaint.  

We still build big churches, but compared with the churches of the past, they are hollow structures.  They are full of people, but those inside lack the fierce commitment to Christ that was there in previous generations. The moral structure of the church of the past is still in ruins.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Nehemiah heard that the Holy City was in ruins. When he heard it, he was upset, but not hopeless. God showed him the key to rebuilding. They had to rebuild the walls. Without a wall to keep out the neighbors, Jerusalem would be overwhelmed by the world.

 We need two kinds of structures, or walls, in our lives. We need inner walls and outer walls. The outer walls are the structures that enable us to live in the world. In our lives, that means things like our family, jobs, houses, cars, and all the things that enable us to live in this world.

But even more important than our outer wall is our inner wall. These are the moral values that help us stand before God. When the outer walls collapse our inner wall stands firm. The inner wall gives us our identity as Christians. If we lose our identity, we can’t exist. 

When Nehemiah hears the news he doesn’t get busy. He doesn’t rush in to try and fix the problem. 
The biggest mistakes we ever make come from a desire to fix our outer problems while ignoring our inner problems.  A person gets divorced, then quickly remarries without any awareness over why they did wrong in their first marriage. We get a job to pay the bills, without stopping to think why we were fired. We try to rebuild the outer wall, but do not deal with mistakes that caused it’s collapse. 
When the Muslims had overrun the Holy Land, Christians responded by launching Crusades. After hundreds of years of bloodshed, the church not only lost, but ended up fighting each other. Spiritual problems do not have military answers. Before we rebuild the outside, we must rebuild the inside.

We see Nehemiah’s wisdom in verse 4, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” He didn’t organize an expedition. He got down on his knees and prayed.

The inner walls begins with our relationship with God. Greater is our God than whatever problems are in the world. God can beat any enemy, heal any hurt, and overcome any obstacle. He carries us when our strength fails. His strength is not human but superhuman. God’s force and power are inside us. They are our inner wall.

Nehemiah’s prayer gives us a good example of how we can rebuild our inner wall. 
Step 1—Start with rebuilding our vision of God. The way we see God determines how we see the world. 

O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandment.” Verse 5.

God is great and awesome. He can do whatever he sets out to do. He is trustworthy. He keeps his word to us. He loves us. Seeing Him as He is give us strength.

There are two crucial mistakes we make about God. The first is to forget He is all powerful. Whatever our problems, God can solve them. 

The second is to forget God loves us. Don’t begin any project of self-renovation until you understand God’s unqualified and unending love for you. He is with you in all circumstances and at all times. 

Step 2--rebuild your devotional time with Him.  
let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants,” Verse 6.

God always hears our prayers, but prayer is more than asking. Our hearts can’t be remade in a day, but through habits developed over a long time. Prayer night and day means developing a habit of consistent prayer.

Don’t take worship lightly. It’s not just a pep rally to get us in the mood to work. Prayer and God’s Word is what renovates our inner selves. It is the most important thing we do.

Our culture scoffs at prayer. Sometimes people who don’t understand prayer act as if it’s unimportant. They make comments like, “God helps those who help themselves” or “He’s too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.”  But hard work and personal effort cannot substitute for God’s help.   Nehemiah recognized that only in God’s power could we win the battle, and not ours that wins the battle.

Step 3--rebuild our humility.
 confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” Verses 6-7.

For generations Israel had become arrogant before God. They thought they could get away with being personally lax and corrupt and still build God’s house. How wrong they were! 

Arrogance is thinking we’re always right and have all the answers. It’s also thinking we’re so important that our personal sins don’t matter. To think we’re right all the time is a sure sign we’re wrong. We need to repent and admit our mistakes.  Rebuild the inner wall with repentance and humility. We must admit that we aren’t always right. Trust in God, but not in our own wisdom.

We cannot know the future, so we should tread very lightly and carefully. Take our time before acting. Walk carefully and stay close to Him. If we think we know what the future will bring, then we should immediately repent of the thought. Stay humble and trust in Him.

This weekend is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick was the person most responsible for the conversion of Ireland to Christianity. St. Patrick’s followers then traveled to Scotland and England, and established Christianity there. If you are of Scottish or Irish descent you probably owe a spiritual debt to St Patrick.

Patrick was a humble man. He had been captured by Irish slavers as a youth, but escaped to England. He was converted and returned to preach.  But his first efforts at preaching met with failure.

Then, on a mountain now known as Croegh Patrick, he prayed and fasted for forty days. When he came down off the mountain, he came with the power of the Lord. Everywhere he went, he stood up to the pagan priests, established churches and won all Ireland for Christ.

It wasn’t church walls he built that converted Ireland. It was what God built in his own soul. His habits of of prayer that enabled him to climb that mountain to stand up to Satan. 

We don’t win spiritual battles by earthly means. We win them on our knees, in humility and repentance.

Nehemiah knew that only came when he stopped leaning on his own understanding. God was king. He made the difference. We learn to follow God one step at a time. The inner structure that carries us through is one of complete trust in Him. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Good Seed Mark 4: 1-20

Preachers tend to have subjects they keep going back to over and over. The subject that has grown in importance in my mind over the past few years is Spiritual Formation, which is the transformation of ordinary Christians into the image and nature of Christ.

This is probably the most neglected subject in the church. I do not exaggerate this. People get saved at church, but they don’t get changed. Spiritual formation is a discussion of how that change happens.

That change starts when we receive the Jesus as our Lord and Savior. God plants the Holy Spirit in them like a seed into the ground. That seed grows in us, transforming our earthly nature, until it produces Jesus’ nature in us. Just as the seed of a corn plant or potato plant takes water, soil and sunlight and transforms it into a vegetable, the Spirit transforms our human nature into something resembling Christ’s nature. The seed of the Spirit starts out very small in us, but it grows big. Jesus compares it to a mustard seed, which is the smallest of seeds, but grows into the biggest of shrubs. He compares it to yeast, which is a microscopic organism that can transform a mountain of dough. All it takes is a small seed, nurtured and allowed to grow and we will be formed into Christ’s image.

But there is no guarantee that even if we have the Spirit of Christ in us, that we will grow to Spiritual maturity. There are many sincere Christians who never get transformed into much more than worldly Christians. Those who do grow into Christian maturity do not all grow in the same way or to the same degree of Christlikeness. Some don’t grow at all. Others grow little. Some grow, but only very slowly.   

Salvation is an all-or-nothing process. You don’t grow into being justified by Christ. You either are saved from hell or you are not. If you have faith in Jesus, you are saved, and you will be saved. But growth into Christ is not so simple. Some people who are saved don’t change much at all. In this metaphor, Jesus gives us a picture of what this growth looks like. Some people find that their spiritual growth has been choked out by the negative forces that are still at work in them, even though they have received the world. We talked about these three forces last week—the world, the flesh, and the Devil. 

Sometimes, God’s word falls on hard, stony ground and no growth occurs at all. It’s like seed that falls on the roadside. This rocky soil is our hard and unyielding flesh—that is our habits, attitudes, and addictions. The Word of God falls on us, but our own stubborn hearts will not give it a place to grow.

 Once we get a habit, attitude, or addiction, we hold on to it and defend it. The hardness of our habits gives no place to God’s Word.

If you’ve ever lived in the county, you know that plants don’t grow on dirt roads. Roads are hard, because the dirt been beaten down. Somebody took a steamroller to the dirt and squeezed out the spaces between the particles until nothing, not seed or even water can penetrate. People can be the same way. Something happens to us that is hard and traumatic, so we respond by getting harder. We become set in our ways. 

 It’s not always a steamroller. Sometimes we get hard through many footsteps over time going along the same road, until nothing new can grow there. When we get beaten down by old habits, we may hear what God can do for us and through us, but we cannot believe it. Our flesh builds up callouses when it is under pressure. When our hearts are calloused, nothing can penetrate that, either, so the seed of Christ cannot be formed there. 

When we get this way, then God plows us.  Hardship, suffering, and confusion is the plow he uses, and the Devil is often driving the plow. Once our stony old ways are broken up, then God can plant new seed in us. But we don’t have to experience suffering for that to happen. If we stay tender before the Lord, and listen to His word, we will break up the hard places and receive Him in to change our lives.

Our soil may not be hard all at once. Jesus also talks about rocky soil. We listen to God, but we only have a few soft spots. Since we can’t be fully grown, we stop growing. The growth of Christ inside us is stunted. We may grow a little like Jesus but are not ready to surrender out whole selves. We don’t like to admit our problems and mistakes. We hate repentance and would rather justify our sins than confess them. Because we do not fully surrender ourselves, Christ cannot be fully formed within. 
Jesus describes something else that stymies our growth--weedy lives. This is when we allow other seeds to grow in us, along with the seed of Christ.  

Faith in Christ is not the only seed that wants to transform us. The Enemy plants other seeds in us. 
Consumerism is one of those seeds. This is the seed that wants to turn us into mindless, greedy consumers. Commercials on television are not just designed to sell you a product, but to make you into a particular kind of people—people who must have things to be happy.  A consumer is a person who believes that having the right clothes, using the right deodorant, or spending lots of money on food, cars, and houses is what life is all about. There’s a popular bumper sticker which says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s the motto for the consumer. Commercials are not just selling stuff, but transforming your spirit into a consumer spirit. They are forming you into the wrong kind of spiritual being. If that seed takes root, then there is no room for the seed of Christ.

Political power is another kind of seed. It doesn’t want us to be people, but cogs in a political machine. We aren’t human beings, but liberals, conservatives, progressives, nationalists, and so forth. This seed wants you to become the kind of person who thinks that if the right political party is in office, then we’ll have peace and security as well as happiness and joy. Your Christlikeness had nothing to do with who is in the White House now. The political seed produces partisans who mistake the worldly power for the power of Christ.

Social favor is another seed the devil plants in us. It’s the desire to please and be pleased by others.  It’s the seed that transforms us into mindless conformists. The social seed teaches us that happiness lies in being part of our group, our race, or our family. Social conformists think that the way to get rid of problems is to uproot anyone around us who is different. It is the seed that says being like other people will make us happy. How can the seed of Christ thrive when all our enthusiasm and effort seem to go into making ourselves into the image of our favorite celebrity, and fitting in with the crowd? 

Jesus describes a third danger to the seed inside us. It can be stolen from us before it takes root. Jesus says the birds will steal it away. 

The birds in this story represent the Satan and those who follow him. These are the spiritual forces and people who profit from us not following God.  They steal the seed from the hearts of our people.
There are leaders outside and inside the church that do not want people to grow. They fight even the concept of being formed into Christ’s image. They would rather keep Christians immature and dependent on themselves so that they can continue to feed off them. 

I believe much of the church has the wrong mission. That mission is to make people into those who serve the church. Their goal is to get workers and tithers who will support the church, fill the pews and to improve the finances. There is nothing wrong with that—in fact it’s good for the institutional church. The problem is that our motivations for doing it are not as pure as we think. Ministers and church leaders are judged by how large their churches are, by how big their salaries and their church budgets are, and how much their churches contribute to the work of the denominations. But God doesn’t judge churches that way.

Christians do not exist to build churches—churches exist to build Christians. When people are growing into the image of Jesus then the work of Jesus is done in the world. The local church is the only institution in the world created for this purpose. Everything else we do, from church growth, social action, and evangelism is the byproduct of successfully building people into the image of Jesus.

At the end of this parable, Jesus discloses the product of growing into Christ’s image. When spiritual growth reaches its full fruition, then it yields a huge harvest—thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred-fold.

Much of what we enjoy in Western Christian culture is merely the byproduct of Christians who sought to imitate the image of Jesus living out our faith. Christian scientists like Isaac Newton, Tyco Brahe, George Washington Carver, and Francis Collins have borne great fruit in science. Christian social reformers produced the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and democracy itself. Christian evangelists like Billy Graham and D. L. Moody won millions to Christ, not just because they preach the Cross, but because they lived publicly like Christians. The difference between Billy Graham and the crooked televangelists who have brought disgrace to the church was his Christlike character, words and behavior.  We may do great things for God, build great ministries in Jesus’ name, but if we don’t act like Jesus, we may hear Jesus say to us in the end, “I never knew you, and you never knew me.” But if we plant a single flower or raise a single child in a way that Jesus would, for the sake of being like Him, He will say “great is your reward in heaven.” It’s not the size of our ministry that matters, but it is the quality of Christ in us. 

Building people into the image of God is the greatest mission we can ever have in life, and the only mission that can last in eternity. 

If you want to follow Jesus, then break up your heart and allow him in. Weed you hearts of the other images that compete for your time and effort, and hide the seed of the Word deep inside, so that it can grow. Then Christ will do the rest.