COLOSSIANS #29. THE KEY TO MEANINGFUL, LASTING PEACE.

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Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best. But Jesus offers us peace in a different way. The way of Jesus to surrender control to him. This requires that we trust him. It means we must trust him to have our best interests in his heart, and the best interests of those we love. It means we must trust that he is able to what is best. It means we trust that his timing is better than ours. It means we must trust even when – no, especially when – we do not understand what he is doing.

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Colossians #29  Colossians 3:14-15

14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.

Starting in verse 12, we were told to “clothe ourselves” or “put on” seven different aspects of the character of Christ. This is what it looks like when Christ lives both in each of us individually, and among us corporately:

Compassion, kindness, humility, patience, gentle restraint (meekness), bearing with one another and forgiving each other. Paul caps off this thought with the following:

“And above all these, the love; it is binding all together to perfectly complete the purpose.” (my “literal” translation)

By the way, when I offer my own translations of various Bible passages, I am not claiming to be a better Bible translator than those who work on the major English versions. Sometimes, however, those who create translations cannot get at the “feel” of the Greek text, because to do so would not be proper English, and more than a few sentences of it would be hard to read and understand. The main thing I want us to see is that love not only binds people together, it also fulfills the purpose of the character of Christ in Christian community. The idea here is very much like the one that Jesus spoke very plainly

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV Matthew 22:34-40)

Paul summed it up like this for the Galatians:

14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV Galatians 5:14)

He explains more clearly for the Romans:

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV, Romans 13:8-10)

In other words, if we really love another, we will be compassionate and kind with one another; we will be humble, patient, meek; we will bear with one another and forgive one another. Love is at the heart of the character of Christ, and so love – and all that loving each other means – perfectly fulfills Christian community.

The next line is this: “And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.”

There are two ways in which this peace should be applied. The application is peace among members of the church. There can be no doubt that this is part of Christian peace. The Holy Spirit is speaking through Paul to Christians who are members of house churches. They are actively involved in a small Christian community. He says that peace should rule between members of these communities – because we together, as one body, have been called to peace. To look at it another way, if we put into action all of what Paul has been saying so far about having compassionate hearts, being kind, gentle, forgiving and so on, we will be at peace with one another.

The second way peace should be applied is within the heart of each individual Christian, because he says that peace should rule our hearts.

Before we go on, let’s talk about what exactly the bible means by “peace.” I think there are three parts to it. First, peace means the absence of strife and worry. In other words, if you have peace, you will be free from conflict, and free from worry, or anxiety. This should be obvious. If you are at peace with someone else, you are not fighting with them. If you are at peace within yourself, you are not worried or agitated.

Second, peace is also the positive presence of calmness or tranquility. Peace is a powerful force that brings rest and quiet confidence into our hearts.

Finally, when the bible talks of “peace” it is often referring to our relationship with God. Peace with God means we are no longer “fighting” with him, or at odds with him. We know that because of Jesus, all is well between us and God.

I think it may be helpful to understand what prevents us from having peace. First, deep in our hearts, we have decided we will do everything we can to get what we want, even if it is not what God wants. For whatever reason, in some area of our lives, we have decided that what we want is non-negotiable. We don’t mind using God to try and get it, but if he won’t help us, we plan to make it happen anyway. Sometimes, maybe it is not something we want, but it is something that we are afraid of. It works the same way, however: we have decided that we must prevent something, even if God has decided to allow it. If God won’t get with the program, then we’ll try to stop it on our own.  

If we are doing anything like this, peace will never rule in our hearts. All the pressure is on us. It is all up to us to either prevent the bad thing from happening, or make the good thing happen. Even if we enlist God’s help, we will not permit him to be in charge, because we must determine the outcome. If we let God be in control, he might allow an outcome that we think is unacceptable.

From all of this it is clear that one the great barriers to peace is our demand that we must be in control. The beginning of peace is to give up control. The Holy Spirit makes this clear by saying “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” It is something we have to allow. We have to stop preventing Christ’s peace from entering.

I want us to dig deeper. Why must we be in control? What is it inside of us that wants to take over, and do all that we can to get our own desired outcome? Selfishness might be part of it. But I think the deepest problem is this: we don’t really trust God.

One of my own biggest barriers in the past was that I thought if I let God be in charge of my life, he would make me miserable. I would have live somewhere I didn’t want live. I would have to do things I didn’t want to do. Now, there is a certain kind of truth to that. I am by nature introverted and selfish. When God called me to be pastor, I had to open up life not only to God, but also to other people. I had to have more chaos in my life, and some heartache that maybe I could have avoided (watching people I had grown to love as they made bad choices). But when I surrendered fully to the Lord, I found tremendous joy in his will for me. I see how empty and vain my life would have been had I insisted upon my own ways. God may have you go through something, or do something, that you don’t want right now. But when we surrender fully to him, when we trust him and give up control, there is a joy that outmatches the hardship.

I certainly never wanted five years of unbelievable pain (I still sometimes say to myself: “This is unbelievable!”). But I have found joy in the midst of this pain. It is not as hard as it sounds, because, by and large, the peace of Christ rules in my heart. I am literally squirming in pain as I write this. Even so, I am at peace. I can’t imagine how angry and depressed I would be if I was still trying to control the outcome of this pain; if I did not trust Jesus fully in the midst of it.

Another issue in trusting God is that sometimes we are not fully convinced that he is good, and that he is working for our good. We think maybe we know better than he does.  We think maybe if we let go and trust him, he may not prove trustworthy. And as long as we insist upon our own expectations and desires, it will indeed often seem like God is letting us down. But when we fully release ourselves in trust to him, we will find that He is indeed good, and his ways are best.

This is not complicated. It is often hard to do, but it is not difficult to understand. If we want the peace of Christ, we must give up on trying to control life, and we must trust Jesus to do what is best, when it is best. We must give up upon insisting that we get we want. We must also give up trying to control things by preventing anything negative from happening. We have to trust God more than we trust ourselves. We have to recognize that if we have Jesus, everything else is ultimately OK. We will certainly have times where we do not understand what God is doing (or why he is not doing something). But we have to trust even when we don’t understand.

I know this is hard to do at times, but we also need to remember that our own sense of being in control is an illusion. You can’t actually prevent a loved one from getting sick. You can’t actually prevent your child from being killed by a drunk driver. You can’t actually insure that you won’t get ALS, or Alzheimer’s. Jesus said:

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV John 14:27)

How does the world offer peace? Only through control:

Are you afraid of being alone all your life? A dating app will help you get control. Afraid of being judged for how you look? We’ve got your health clubs, your make-up, your clothes, your hairdresser, everything you need to get control of the situation. Afraid of getting sick? We’ve got your supplements, your diet programs, your exercise regimens, pharmaceuticals, and much more. Most of it is only $19.99. Are you worried you’ll be stuck in a terrible marriage? Our divorce lawyers will help you take back control. Concerned about finances? We’ve got spreadsheets, tax advisors, financial planners, investment opportunities and much, much more.

Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best.

But Jesus gives peace in a different way. He says “Let me handle it; I will take care of it it my way. All you have to do is trust.”

The Holy Spirit tells us to let peace rule our hearts. This is the opposite of us being in control. It is no mistake that right after, he adds, “And be thankful.” Thanksgiving is a gateway to peace. When we thank the Lord, we are recognizing that he is in charge, and that he is trustworthy to do for us what is good. If you are struggling to give up control, struggling to trust God, I highly recommend developing a habit of thanking God for everything.

When I get up in the morning, I’m usually pretty miserable. I don’t sleep well, so I’m very tired. The night time is my longest stretch between doses of pain medication, and I’m usually in a lot of pain. So I don’t feel thankful at that time of day. But you know, I can thank Him for coffee. I wouldn’t survive without it at this stage of my life. Then, of course, electricity is required to make coffee (we don’t have gas appliances), so I can thank him for electricity. Kari usually greets me right away when I get up, and I can thank the Lord for her. Basically, what I am saying is that we should start with anything at all we can think of about which to thank the Lord. As we thank him for little things, more things keep coming to mind. If we do this consistently, it becomes a wonderful habit, and it helps us to trust more, to give up control more, and therefore to allow the peace of God to rule our hearts.

In addition to thanksgiving, reading the Bible is helpful for letting the Peace of Christ rule our hearts. There are more than 80 verses in the New Testament alone about peace. I want to leave you with a few to meditate on:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Philippians 4:6-7. Note that thanks-giving element in there!) 

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (ESV, Romans 15:13)

23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it (ESV, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #28: PRACTICAL THOUGHTS ON FORGIVING OTHERS

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Forgiving someone is the opposite of saying “it’s OK.” The only reason to forgive someone is because they truly hurt you. By definition, no one deserves forgiveness. We need to forgive for our own sake, because the alternative is bitterness and bile in our own souls. There is no way to get the person who hurt you to bear the pain that they caused, not even if they are willing. It’s like trying to get someone else to bleed for you. Jesus empowers us to forgive, and gives us a basis for forgiving others.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 28

COLOSSIANS #28. FORGIVING OTHERS, PART 2

Last time we started to look at what it means for Christians to forgive. Forgiveness is as much, or more, for our own sake, as for the sake of the person we forgive. When we do not forgive, our anger and bitterness binds us to the person that we are not forgiving. We cannot let go of them, because we cannot let go of the hurt they have caused us. Usually, the idea of being bound to the person that hurt us is repulsive – that’s the last thing we want! But the only way to become unbound is to forgive. Also, when we refuse to forgive, we are closing our own hearts to the forgiveness that God offers us. If we harbor unforgiveness, it may be because we don’t really believe and trust that we are truly forgiven ourselves. We don’t really believe and trust the good news, and that means it does us no good.

This is deadly serious. Jesus said it was so serious, that if you are on your way to worship God, and you remember there is something between you and another Christian, don’t go to worship until you have settled it:

23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (NLT, Matthew 5:23-24)

You may not realize it, but this is even a bigger deal than it sounds like. At the time Jesus said this, he was talking to people who lived way out in the country, many days’ travel from the temple in Jerusalem. If someone was offering their gift on the altar, it meant they were at the temple in Jerusalem. Reconciling with the person who hurt them might mean not just leaving the altar, but leaving Jerusalem, and taking an extra journey of several days to go back home, find that person, and then reconcile, and then return again to Jerusalem. Remember, there were no telephones or internet, or even motorized vehicles in those days. Jesus is saying, “take an extra week or more, if that’s what it requires.”

So it is extremely important – earth-shakingly important – that we forgive others.

Let’s talk about exactly how we go about forgiving others.

In the first place, let’s consider what happens when someone hurts us. They cause us some sort of emotional or physical harm. Without asking our permission, suddenly they are forcing us to bear emotional pain that is their fault. They were the ones who did the thing, but now we are the ones who have to live with the pain of what they have done.

What happens naturally, is that we want them to pay. We want the person who hurt us to bear the “cost” of that hurt. We want them to suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, that can’t be done. The nature of being hurt is such that the one who does the hurting is not the one who feels the pain.

This is true in the physical world, also. If I cut you with a knife, it is your skin that carries the wound, and your body that bleeds. Even if it was an accident, and I wish it could be different, I cannot bleed for you, or carry the wound that is yours. You could cut me, but it’s not the same thing. Even if you cut me back, you still have to bleed from the wound that I inflicted on you. My pain does not ease your pain. This is exactly how things work emotionally and spiritually. There is no way to get the person who hurt you to bear the pain that they caused. Not even if they are willing.

So, when we refuse to forgive, we are trying to get something impossible from the other person. We are trying to get them to pay in a way that is simply impossible. We might inflict new wounds upon them, but that doesn’t help our hurt to feel better. And when we keep trying to get the impossible from someone, we are forever bound to them. The only way to end the cycle is to forgive. The only way to finally get healing is to forgive.

Sometimes, we get confused about how to forgive, and what it means. Forgiving someone is the opposite of saying “it’s OK.” No, the only reason to forgive someone is because they truly hurt you. By definition, no one deserves forgiveness. Forgiveness is releasing the “debt” incurred by someone who treated you in a way that is inexcusable. There is no justification for the way they hurt you – that’s why forgiveness is needed. So, to forgive is not at all to say “This didn’t matter,” or “No worries.” The first step in forgiving another is to recognize that they truly hurt you, and the way they treated you is not justified.

The next step is to release them from the “debt” they incurred by treating you badly. When you cut me down in front of other people, it creates an “emotional cost.” Suddenly, I have to deal with all sorts of negative feelings about myself, and about you. I have to deal with the fact that other people might now look at me differently than they did before. These are emotional and relational burdens that you just dumped on me by your cruel words.

If I don’t forgive, then I will treat you in a certain way, think about you in a certain way, in order to try and get you to “pay” for what you did to me. As we have already learned, however, that simply can’t be done. You cannot pay the cost of your hurt, not even if you wanted to. Again, as we have already said, trying to get you to pay will only create a negative bond between you and me. When we don’t forgive, we are always trying to get something out of the person who hurt us, some sort of payment for what they did to us. Our unforgiveness keep us tied to them. The only way to be separate from them is forgive, to release them from the emotional debt they incurred with us when they hurt us. Sometimes people say that you must forgive someone for your sake, not theirs. This is part of why that is true.

Deep feelings about forgiveness are not necessary. Forgiveness is, first and foremost, an act of will. That act can be immensely powerful, even if no emotions accompany it. When I was in my twenties, I found myself battling with a certain sin. Whenever I was tempted, I failed. I went to a counselor, and we discovered that I had not forgiven a certain person from my childhood. I did not even have strong feelings about what this person did to me. The counselor walked me through forgiving that person, and I had hardly any feelings at all as I determined to forgive the person, and release them from all emotional “debt” they had incurred. When it was over, however, I found that the sin I was battling with had lost its power. Now, I was still tempted, but I was able to easily overcome the temptation. That is the power of forgiveness.

If someone has come into your thoughts as you read this message, I want to encourage you to forgive that person. It is a simple process, though sometimes difficult emotionally. I encourage you to do the following steps out loud, perhaps with a spouse, or with a trusted Christian friend of the same sex with you to encourage you, and witness your declaration of forgiveness (I don’t mean the person who hurt you. I mean someone who can support you as you walk through this process).

First, we need to confess that our unforgiveness is a sin. As Christians, it is wrong for us to withhold forgiveness from those who hurt us. As we learned from the previous message in this series, it is outrageously offensive that we would withhold forgiveness from others after God has forgiven us. So, begin by confessing that your lack of forgiveness is a sin.

Next, we state, as clearly as possible, what was done to you that needs to be forgiven. Say who did it. Speak out loud what exactly hurt you, and why it was painful for you. State clearly that what was done to you was wrong. It is not acceptable, not OK. It should not have been done to you.

As much as possible, try to mean what you say, and say what you mean. You might be gritting your teeth, and saying, “I still feel angry, but I have determined in my will to forgive Jane. So I am forgiving her.” Rely fully upon Jesus as you do it. You might say something like: “I do not have the power to forgive Jane. But in the name and power of Jesus, I forgive her, trusting Jesus to make it real for me.” Go on to formally release the unforgiven person from the emotional debt that they have incurred. You might want to say something like: “I hereby declare that I forgive Jane for this. I say that Jane no longer owes me anything. She cannot pay for the wrong she did me, and I release the debt. We are done with this. I am done with it. I am letting it go. I rely on the power of Jesus to make my forgiveness real.”

Sometimes, it helps us to know that Jane’s debt really will be paid for. That is why we have Jesus. Jesus died for your sins. He also died for Jane’s. If she is a Christian, Jesus paid for Jane’s sin. Are you going to say that he should pay for your sins, but what he did is not enough to pay for Jane’s? Certainly not! And if she is not a Christian, we ought to have nothing but pity for Jane. She will indeed pay for every last thing she has done, and she will pay forever and ever. Surely, that is good enough.

If the old anger and bitterness comes back, remined yourself that it is over. You are done with that, now. Jesus has paid, for it, and if Jane rejects that, Jesus will make sure that Jane pays back every last bit of every debt she incurred.

Now, what does this mean, going forward? What if Jane does exactly the same thing to you, two days after you have forgiven her? Remember the standard that Jesus gave Peter, when Peter asked about this very thing? Peter wondered how many times he needed to forgive someone who kept on hurting him. Jesus’ reply was “a perfect number, multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.” In other words, “over and over and over again, ad infinitum.”

Let’s say it is our imaginary friend Jane again. She has a habit of cutting you down in front of other people, especially people whom you love and respect. You forgive her, and sure enough, next time you are together in a group of friends, she does it again.

There is nothing sinful about confronting someone who hurts you over and over again like this. The confrontation should be loving, and done in a spirit of forgiveness. As much as possible, stick to talking about how you feel when Jane cuts you down in front of others. It might even help if you try consciously to start your sentences with, “Jane, I feel hurt and belittled when you talk that way about me in front of others.” You ask her to please stop the behavior that hurts you.

The best case scenario is that Jane stops, and through your forgiveness of her, you become close friends. The worst case scenario is that she keeps it up, or does it even more. If that is the case, you still need to forgive Jane. It would also be wise to stop inviting Jane to be there with you and your friends, or to avoid situations where you will be with Jane in a group of people. This is not unforgiveness. You still must release the “debt” Jane incurs when she hurts you. But it is not wrong to try and avoid situations where Jane has the chance to keep hurting you. It is OK to distance yourself a little bit.

If the hurt is taking place within your small Christian community (house church, or small group) you might need to follow the protocol that Jesus lays out in Matthew 18:15-20. After talking privately (and not before!), if that doesn’t work, bring another member of your church/group and talk with Jane again. If Jane continues to do this, and the person you brought along can see that this is so, then bring up the matter in front of the whole church. In this context, it would be happening during a house church meeting, in a group no bigger than could fit in your home. If, after addressing it in front of the church, Jane continues to put you down, the church might ask her to leave the group until she can learn to control her tongue. You must forgive her, even if you have to take steps to distance yourself so that you are not continually hurt.

By the way, we should not look for perfection in a scenario like this. In reality, probably Jane apologizes when you confront her, and she is genuinely sorry. Even so, old habits die hard, and she might forget at times, and say something before she stop herself. Again, you need to forgive her. If she seems to be working on it, even if she often fails, it is good to give her a chance.

Sometimes a person like Jane might absolutely deny that she has done anything wrong. If that is the case, you still need to forgive her. The course of wisdom would suggest that you also reduce all contact with her to a minimum.

Being hurt in marriage is a lot more complicated. We must forgive, as the scripture says. But it is more difficult, and also dangerous for the marriage, to start avoiding each other, or avoiding any deep conversation. In the case of abuse, of course, the abused party should distance herself immediately, and not return until the abuser has received professional help. In the case of adultery, the wounded party is free to leave the marriage (but not required). In all other cases, we need to stay and work it out. We can still try to avoid the sorts of situations that usually result in us being hurt, but we don’t have the option of just giving up on the relationship. I recommend professional counseling if your marriage is a source of continuing and ongoing emotional pain.

Once again, let us wrap it up by looking at the cross. Jesus, by the cross, made possible your own forgiveness. It is only by the cross that we can forgive others. The cross assures us that God takes seriously the sins of those who hurt us. It also humbles us, and helps us recognize that we cannot hold grudges against those who hurt us. And through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his Holy Spirit, God gives us the power to forgive others. Let’s always remember to ask him for it!

COLOSSIANS #27: FORGIVING EACH OTHER

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Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us. If we are struggling to forgive, the cross of Christ can help us. It shows us not only the seriousness of our sin, but also the seriousness of the sin committed by the person who hurt you. In the cross we find both justice and grace.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 27

Colossians #27. Colossians 3:13

 There is one final thing that I did not yet cover in the overview of how Christians are meant to treat one another: Forgiving one another. This is an extremely important topic, and many people either don’t know, or don’t fully understand what the Bible says about it. We will spend the next two weeks considering it.

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, tells us that we must forgive as we have been forgiven by Jesus. This idea is repeated consistently throughout the New Testament. The Lord’s prayer is really a way of praying. We aren’t just meant to repeat the words: Jesus teaches us the kinds of things we should regularly pray for. So, with “hallowed be thy name” we learn we should pray that the holiness of God is manifested in the world, and in us. “Forgive us our debts, and we forgive our debtors” tells us that we should regularly confess our sins, asking for forgiveness, and also that we should regularly forgive those who hurt us. Matthew’s version ends like this:

12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (ESV, Matthew 6:12-15)

That’s right. “Thine is the kingdom…etc” is not in the Bible. What is at the end of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” is an additional thought about forgiving others. Jesus says that if we refuse to forgive, the Father will not forgive us. Here is another one about forgiving in the same way we have been forgiven:

32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Ephesians 4:32)

Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness. He wanted to know if there was some sort of limit he could put on forgiveness:

21 Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven. (CSB, Matthew 18:21-22)

Seven was considered a special number in Jewish culture. It is the number of perfection, the number of God, a holy number. Though in the Greek could be the number 77, there is a more likely way to understand this, given the culture they were in. It is much more like “seventy times seven.” Even then, Jesus did not mean 490 times. The first people who heard Jesus would have understood that he meant: “a perfect number multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.”  In plain language: “an unlimited number of times.” In current language it might be something like this:

“How many times do I need to forgive? A thousand times?”

“I don’t say a thousand times…I say a thousand times a thousand! That’s right a million times, or even more!”

Right after this, Jesus told a parable about forgiveness. I’ll adapt it to our current culture:

There was a guy named Joe who got drunk, and drove his car into another vehicle. The other vehicle was carrying a wife and three children. The wife and two of the kids were killed outright, and the third child was left unable to walk for the rest of her life. The drunk driver, Joe, had a  minor scratch on his arm, and was otherwise unhurt. The husband and father of the devastated family was a man named Rick. When Joe sobered up, he was taken to court. The evidence against him was overwhelming. He knew he was drunk when he got into the car. He resisted all the attempts of his friends to drive him home, or call him a ride. He was guilty as sin. But he begged for leniency. At his hearing, Rick, the husband and father of the family that was devasted by the accident, pleaded on behalf of the drunk driver. Rick himself was a judge, and he begged his fellow judge to let Joe go with just a warning. He told Joe  he forgave him. The judge was moved, and dismissed Joe’s case.

A week later, a teenage driver – the son of one of Joe’s neighbors – backed into Joe’s fence. The kid was still learning to drive, and it was just inexperience. Joe’s neighbor, and the teenage boy, came and apologized to him. The family was struggling financially, but they promised Joe they would pay him back, just as soon as they got the cash. Joe refused to accept the apology, and told them that if they didn’t pay him immediately, he would sue them. They couldn’t, and so Joe sued them for the damage to his fence, and also for emotional damages amounting to five thousand dollars. When the case came to court, Joe found himself standing in front of none other than Rick, who was the judge assigned to the case.

Now, how do you suppose that Rick would respond when he judges the case? What would he think about Joe? How would you feel about Joe? Does Joe deserve to win his case? Doesn’t the fact that he himself was forgiven mean anything about how he ought to treat others? Shouldn’t it mean something?

Part of what makes us so angry about this story is that Joe is taking full advantage of the forgiveness that was given to him, but is absolutely unwilling to extend any grace to a teenage boy for a far smaller offense. If Joe continues to insist on suing his neighbor, do you think he should still be forgiven for his crime?

Jesus tells us that when we refuse to forgive others, we are acting just as offensively as “Joe” in the his parable. It is outrageous that we would beg God for forgiveness, but then refuse to forgive someone who hurts us.

One of the terrible things about what Joe did, was that by his negligence, he destroyed human lives. He ended the life of three precious people, two of them children. His actions devastated the lives of two others – the child who will never walk again, and Rick, the husband/father who lost his wife and two children, and now must care for his one disabled child. Joe’s crime strikes at the heart of things that we hold precious, and that is part of what makes us so angry about it.

God is the most precious thing in the universe. When we sin, we are striking at the heart of all that is good, right, beautiful and precious. It is like painting graffiti all over the Sistine chapel ceiling, or dumping toxic waste in the Grand Canyon, or hurting a child. That’s how serious sin is, because God is more precious than all of those things put together. The fact that God forgives us is HUGE. There is nothing bad that anyone could do to us that compares with the evil of our sin against God. Therefore, when we refuse to forgive someone after we ourselves have been forgiven, it is outrageous. The Bible is crystal clear. When we refuse to forgive others, we cut ourselves off from the forgiveness that is offered in Jesus.

I think this is as much about the way the things work as it is some sort of deliberate “punishment” from God. In the first place, if we are refusing to forgive someone, it is likely that we are convinced of our self-righteousness. If we can’t let go of what someone else has done to us, it seems unlikely that we are deeply connected, with both humility and gratitude, to what God has done for us. Think about the story I told (an adaption of the one Jesus told) about the drunk driver Joe, and the man Rick, whose family was killed by Joe. Part of what is so outrageous, part of what makes us angry when we hear it, is that the “Joe” character clearly has no appreciation for the forgiveness that Rick and the judge offered him. How could he really know he was forgiven by them, and still behave in that way toward his neighbor? The answer is: he couldn’t. The only way he could be so mean and petty toward his neighbor is that somehow, he doesn’t really understand, accept, or appreciate what Rick and the judge have done for him.

There are three possibilities for why Joe remained so mean-spirited, even after he was forgiven. First, he may not really believe that he is truly forgiven. His heart remains hard because he doesn’t really accept that his own wrongdoing has been washed away. He may not have forgiven himself. So he still lives under a cloud of condemnation and self-loathing, but it is based on the fact that he has not accepted the gift that was offered to him, he is not connected to the reality of the gift. So, just as he has rejected forgiveness for himself, he also rejects the idea of forgiving another.

Second, he may not believe that what he did was so bad. He might be somehow trying to justify his actions, and if he is doing that, he can’t receive forgiveness, because that would mean he was guilty, and needed it. He says to himself, “Sure, maybe I had a few drinks, but I wasn’t out of control. I bet that woman was looking at her cell phone, and she was the one who caused the crash. They just chose to blame me, because they think she was such a nice person.” Or, he might say, “My wife left me two months ago. I had to drink, it is the only thing that helps. If anyone is to blame, it’s my own wife for treating me so badly that it drove me to drink.” There are dozens of ways Joe could find to justify himself, or minimize his own blame. As long as he is denying responsibility, he must also deny the forgiveness that is offered to him. If he accepts the forgiveness, it means he must also accept that he was to blame.

 Third, he may utterly reject the whole thing. He says: “It’s big pointless, stupid world, and bad things happen. I just happened to be involved in it, but I don’t accept these judgements that someone else is putting on me, about what’s wrong, or what’s right. Wrong and right don’t even exist. It is what it is. We live in a random universe, with no “God” in charge. No, I won’t let them try to feel better by blaming me. “

So it is with us. The only way we can persist in not forgiving others, is one of those three possibilities: 1) We don’t really, truly trust that our own sins have been completely forgiven. Or,       2) We justify our own sins, and either claim they aren’t so bad, or insist that there are good reasons we have to sin the way we do. We are self-righteous, and don’t accept blame. Or, 3) perhaps, we reject the idea of sin, God and right and wrong altogether. 4) Or, perhaps it is a combination of all of these things.

Think about it another way. We have our “spiritual fists” clenched tightly closed around the hurt that someone caused us. That means that our spiritual hands cannot, at the same time, be open to receive what God offers. Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us.

Imagine a Christian woman who does ministry in the prison system. She tells a murderer that he can be forgiven for his sin of murder. She tells drug dealers the good news that Jesus has wiped all of their sins away. But at the same time, she holds a deep grudge against her sister-in-law. She has never forgiven her, because the sister-in-law didn’t come to Thanksgiving Dinner at her house five years ago, and made some comments about the lack of cleanliness in her kitchen.

How can this be? How can we say a murderer can be forgiven, but not a relative who has insulted us? Surely, this woman cannot be truly connected to the grace that God has given her, the grace that she proclaims to criminals. How could she believe her message of forgiveness for murderers, but, at the same time withhold forgiveness for family members who hurt her feelings?

Sometimes, we withhold forgiveness because the person who hurt us has never said sorry. This might be the case of the woman with the irritating sister-in-law. But the text says, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive.” How has the Lord forgiven us? Did he wait for us to say sorry? No!

6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son (NLT, Romans 5:6-10, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Christ loved us and forgave us long before we paid any attention to Him. It is true, the forgiveness offered through Jesus will not help us if we refuse to repent. But as soon as we turn to him, we find that forgiveness is there waiting for us. So, perhaps someone has hurt us. If we forgive them, and they don’t care, it may mean that the relationship remains strained. But for our part, we must let go of what they have done wrong. We must not hold it against them, and we must not hold on to grudges, or anger or bitterness.

I want to say one final thing. This might seem really difficult. We might think: “I know I’ve been forgiven, and I am grateful, but I have so much hurt and anger against this person, I just don’t know what to do with it all.” The key to all this is to consider what Jesus did on the cross. The cross shows us the seriousness of our own sin – that is the punishment we rightly deserve – to die the death that Jesus died, and to suffer in hell. It also shows us the seriousness of the sin of those who have hurt us. That is also what the sins of others deserve, including the sins that others committed by hurting us. God takes seriously the pain that others have caused you. He declares it deserves a humiliating death by crucifixion. If our sin was punished in Jesus, can we not see that the sins of our fellow Christians was punished the same way? Satisfaction has been made for that thing that was done to you. It has been declared utterly wrong, and it has been punished, on the cross. Find peace in the sacrifice of Jesus, which shows us both the depth of sin, and the depth of grace.

There is plenty for us to chew on right now. Next time we will talk about what forgiveness for those who hurt us really looks like. Does it mean we have to open ourselves up to be hurt again? Does it mean that we are saying that what they did to us was OK? How can I find it in me to continually practice forgiving others? What exactly must I do (or not do) when I forgive someone? How can I let go of the hurt and anger?

COLOSSIANS #26: LIVING THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST IN YOUR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others. Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all?

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Colossians #26.  Colossians 3:1-14, especially 12-13

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

We are now deeper into a section of Colossians that tells Christians how we are to act. But we need to remember the basis for the way we act. It is not in order to get God to let us into heaven. It is not to prove our worth in any way, or get God to be pleased with us. Instead, we behave in certain ways because God has already forgiven us, and imparted to us the character of Christ. This section of Colossians shows us what the character of Christ looks like in each one of us. Particularly for this time, it shows us what the character of Christ looks like as we live in community with other Christians.

In several key places Paul has given us reminders that our behavior should be the result of what God has already done for us:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him Colossians (2:6)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (2:9-10)

​If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (3:1-4)

So again here, Paul gives us the reason for our changed behavior:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on…

We relate to one another as the New Testament tells us to because we are God’s specially chosen people. He has made us holy, and he loves us dearly. Therefore, this is what it looks like to reflect the character of Christ that God has already given us.

Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others.

Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all? Since Jesus is now in us,  through the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we just sort of “naturally” behave according to God’s intentions? Why all these verses about what to do, and what not to do?

I think there are three things that might help us with this question.

In the first place, in this mortal life, before we enter the New Creation, we live under the influence of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, we are not in neutral territory. There are other influences on us, telling us lies, making us feel left out, encouraging our sinful impulses. Even if we “naturally” know how to live in the character of Jesus Christ, there is tremendous pressure to live for ourselves, or for the things the world values, or according to the lies of the devil. With so many voices speaking loudly against the things of God, it is important for us to have clear guidance about how to live, so that we know what is true, right and good, and what is not.

There is another thought. Picture a dog with its food. Imagine trying to train the dog to share its food with other animals, or even just other dogs. For many years we had a wonderful dog, named Mario. He was a truly sweet-natured animal. He was kind and protective, not only toward the humans in our family, but also toward all of our (many) other animals. I had no qualms leaving him alone with our three year old daughter, or even little babies. But there was one thing that brought out savagery in Mario, and that was if any other animal approached his food dish when he was eating. My point is, it would be difficult to train most dogs to share their food. It’s unfortunate, but true, that really the only way to do it would be to make the dog so afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t share, that it obeys the master’s command to share. In other words, the dog never actually learns to want to share. It merely learns that it is more painful to be selfish than it is to share. To put it another way, the nature of the dog does not become sharing. The nature remains selfish. Only its behavior is conformed to the master’s desire.

In contrast, picture training a young child to share her toys. This is also challenging, and in some ways, much more difficult than training a dog, because you don’t want to use fear or coercion, and you want not just a changed behavior, but also a changed attitude. However, there is something in the child’s nature that is not in the dog’s. It is possible for a child to learn to enjoy sharing, to want to share. But even though that potential exists in her nature, it takes teaching and training to bring it out. So, our nature, because of Jesus, has been changed from one like a dog’s, to one like a child’s. Even so, we still need teaching and training to learn how to use the potential of our new nature.

Here’s one more analogy that may help. The entrance requirements for the United States Air Force Academy are extremely high. You have to be smart, and prove that you can do well academically. You have to prove that you have leadership potential. You have to prove that you are person of character and integrity. You have to have sponsors – including a member of congress. Now imagine a young cadet. He has the smarts. He has the leadership potential, the character, and the sponsorship. He is fully qualified. He has what it takes. He has applied, and he has been accepted. So now, he is cadet in the Air Force Academy. The fact that he has what it takes is now taken for granted. However, he must now learn how to use what he has. Even though he is accepted as a cadet, he must learn to apply what he “has” to being an officer in the Air Force. And the process doesn’t end when he graduates. Once he graduates, he becomes a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He has the commission, he is an officer. Even so, has really only just begun to learn how to work and live like an officer.

So it is with us, who have trusted Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have what it takes. We are fully qualified to in God’s kingdom, to manifest the character of Christ. We have been accepted. Even so, we still need to learn how to use what we have been given. We need to learn to live according to the grace we have been given.

We have been  talking about what it means to live out the character of Christ. First, Paul explained some things to put away from us: sexual immorality, covetousness (greed) malice, obscene talk, and so on. Now, he is telling us something to “put on.” So, first, he covered the negative: “Don’t do certain things,” and now he is talking about the positive: “Do these other things.”

The things we are to do are focused on our life together with other believers. It is not wrong to treat strangers this way, but this text, and many others like in the Bible, assume that we belong to small group of other Christians – that is, a house church. The way we treat others begins in the house church. It doesn’t end there – we should treat all people well – but it starts with us learning to live with each other in the love of Jesus Christ. If claim to love “the world” but don’t actually live in loving relationships with other believers, we will be hypocrites. Also, when we understand that this was first to be practiced among a group of other Christians that was small enough to fit in your living room, things make more sense. It is difficult to have a compassionate heart for all of the other 4,987 members of your mega-Church. In fact, when we try to apply it too broadly, Bible passages like this one become meaningless. How can you be kind and humble and meek and patient with hundreds of people whom you don’t even really know? No, Christianity was always meant to be practiced primarily with a small group of others who became your spiritual family. The word “family” is meaningless if we apply it to so many relatives that we are talking about hundreds of people. The things that go along with our understanding of “family”  necessarily mean a fairly small group of people. It should be exactly the same with “church.”

I am not saying it is wrong for mega-churches to exist. But where they do, they ought to get their members into small groups where real-life faith can be worked out together in real community. Many of the best mega churches do exactly that. But until and unless you get involved in a small Christian community where you know everyone, and they all know you, these teachings in the New Testament will be quite difficult to actually apply to your life.

The first thing is “compassionate hearts.” A more literal translation might have something like: “compassion straight from your guts.” The word used for “heart” is actually “internal organs” and it means a deep, powerful feeling. Compassion means that you “feel alongside with” another person. Sympathy means you feel for someone, but compassion is feeling with. Thankfully, other parts of the Bible explain this clearly:

5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV, Romans 12:15)

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

3 Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (ESV, Hebrews 13:3)

We are supposed to be so connected to the other Christians in our local Christian community (that is, our house church) that we “feel with” them. If they are happy, it should cause us to be happy. If they are suffering, they should know that we are so connected that we hurt too.

Kindness is the next thing listed. There is no mystery here, I think we all know what it is. Again, our biggest need is not to understand it, but to actually practice it with other believers, first, and then, also the world. I think one of the easiest ways to be either kind, or not, is in our words. Sometimes it feels so satisfying, so powerful, to say unkind things to or about another person. But this is not what the life of Jesus in you wants to do. A kind word at the right time can build up a person more than we can possibly imagine.

Humility is all about allowing  God (not ourselves) to defend our “rights,” and to trust him to make sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Even if that doesn’t take place in this mortal life, we trust that God will make it right in the New Creation. With that sense – that we don’t need to defend our own rights, or pride, or honor – we can deal with each other humbly. We don’t need to insist upon our way, nor make snide comments when our way is not taken, and things don’t go smoothly. We can be right without rubbing the faces of others in that fact.

Meekness is a word I’ve struggled to define for many years. The closest I can come is a mix of gentleness and humbleness. Humility and meekness do not mean that we have to look down upon ourselves, or believe that we are always wrong, or not worthy of respect. If you look at the life that Jesus lived on earth, we can see what both humility and meekness look like. Jesus was (and still is) King of the Universe. Yet, he did not insist upon his rights, or his own way. He dealt gently with people who did not respect him – and there was, literally, no one worthy of more respect. He presented the truth clearly, but did not try to force anyone to comply.  He did, at times, force people to make a decision about Himself. Even then, he gently spoke to them until they had to face up what he was saying about himself. At that point, they had to choose to either believe, or not, but he did not force them to believe.

Jesus was, by definition, always right, but he did not rub anyone’s face in that fact. He knew who he was, certainly. He didn’t feel badly about himself, nor have low self-esteem. He didn’t pretend he was wrong. But he didn’t either insist that everyone recognize his rightness, or give him what he truly deserved.

I think we all know what patience is. But I want us to think about what it means to be patient with each other in Christian community. It might mean smiling and waiting it out when someone tells you the same story you’ve heard fifteen times already. It could mean remaining calm and hoping for the best when someone in the group fails to make the best choice – for the twentieth time in twenty days. It means everyone sticking with each other even when it seems like things aren’t going anywhere. It means sticking with individuals in the group when they continue to struggle with the same things for months – or even years – at a time. It means continuing to commit to the group even when there is a season when it feels like you aren’t getting a lot out of it. Your presence there may be the main reason someone else is getting a lot out of it, and what goes around comes around – but not usually very quickly.

Bearing with one another. No one is perfect, but when you get to know a group of people really well, you find that they are all a group of especially imperfect people. We need to bear with one another’s idiosyncrasies and bad habits, and socially awkward graces and body odor, and bad cooking and so on.

We have plenty to chew on for this time. Ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say to you right now? How does he want you to take action on these things? How is he calling you to trust him today?

 

COLOSSIANS #23: THE SOURCE OF LIFE

green leafy plant starting to grow on beige racks
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 There is no life in external things like bad stuff happening, or even good stuff happening.  If we live by our circumstances, or how we feel, we will be constantly going up and down, back and forth. Our text today tells us to seek life in the things of the spirit, not in our circumstances or flesh. We can be OK, no matter what is going on around us, or even in our own bodies. Our life is hidden in Christ with God, and that is where we draw our strength, joy and peace.

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Colossians #23. Colossians 3:1-4

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (ESV, Colossians 3:1-4)

In Colossians 2:11-12 Paul explains that those who trust Jesus have been buried with Jesus by faith, in baptism, and that they have also been raised with Christ. Again, in verse 20, he says, “since you died with Christ, don’t be sucked into living according to the principles of this world.” He has been telling us things to avoid: legalism, religious hypocrisy, trying to justify ourselves to God, or somehow add to what Jesus has done for us.

Now, he begins with the other side of the equation. In Jesus, we died to the basic principles of this world. That means, says Paul, you have been raised with Christ to a new kind of life. Since you have this new life in Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Set your minds on the things above, not on the things of earth.

I want to dive into this deeply, because it is so important. To help us, let’s briefly consider the life of the prophet Elijah. He lived in ancient Israel, during a dark time of history. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. Even so, he hid from the king and queen for most of the time of the drought.

At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.

Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and the cloud formed and a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.

Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.

The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done….ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further. Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about show Elijah His presence.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence.

Many translations say, “a still small voice.” I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The important thing is that when Elijah heard the silent voice, he went out and listened to the Lord. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.

I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.

Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing! But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.

You see what was going on? Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.

We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

Remember how God showed himself to Elijah. He was not in the storm, or the earthquake or the fire. Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still.

This is what Paul is saying to us: “Your real life is in the spirit, through Jesus. Set your mind on spiritual things, not in how your life is going.”

We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn to how cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense.  Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life from Externals.

We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks here on earth. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus  was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). The word for “tested” or “tempted” is the Greek word pronounced “peiradzo.” Some English translations say “tempted” but it doesn’t really mean just temptation to sin. It means undergoing trials to determine an outcome. In other words, this is life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt. If Jesus could not throw a lasso around life and make it behave for him, do you really think you can?

Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – that can be a daunting idea. “You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going live holy again?”

The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life out of our behavior. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.

Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there.  There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.

There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.

The reason there is no life in these things is because they all take place on the outside of us – in our flesh. Paul has been telling us that our flesh is already dead through Christ. We’re done with it. There is no life there. Let’s go back to how human beings are made. The scripture says there are three parts to humans: Body, Soul, and Spirit

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12 (ESV)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

It’s a different Greek word for each one: soma (body) psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). The body is fatally infected by sin. It is going to die. Everyone dies in this way. Sometimes, the New Testament calls a sin-infected body “the flesh.”

The soul is where we have our mind and personality. It is connected both to the body, and also to the spirit. It is the go-between, the middle. You might say the soul is where spiritual battles take place. Our soul can tell our flesh to stop doing something it wants to do, or to keep doing it. I believe that the souls of Christians will be made perfect and holy and complete when they are given new resurrection-bodies.

The spirit is the part of us that interacts with spiritual things. Those who do not trust Jesus have spirits that are dead to God (but alive to the influence of evil spiritual power). When we trust Jesus, our spirits are made alive to God, whole, perfect and holy, and dead to sin. The condition of your spirit, in Jesus, never changes. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely. Your spirit is fine if things are going well in your life. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely fine if things are going badly in your life. If you belong to Jesus, your life – your truest life, your spirit-life is already with Christ in God.

Now we can better understand what Paul was saying to the Colossians, and what God was showing Elijah. Life comes from God, through our spirit, into our soul, and then out into our behavior. If we want true life, we need to fix our thoughts and ambitions and desires upon the things of the spirit. These are what Paul calls “things above.” When we have real spirit life, we are no longer controlled by what the body/flesh wants. One of my bible school teachers put it this way:

“There are two dogs inside of you. A good dog, and an evil one. They are fighting each other for control over you.”

“Which dog wins?” asked someone.

“Whichever one you feed,” she said.

Paul is telling us to feed the good dog by setting our hearts, minds and will upon the things of the spirit. This is one reason that reading the Bible regularly is so important. I started reading the bible daily when I was thirteen years old. I’ve had spells when it wasn’t daily, but in general, I’ve continued ever since. Now, reading the Bible like that did not, in and of itself make me more holy. It certainly did not make God love me any more than he already did, and it didn’t make him love me any more than he loves people who don’t read their bible. But what it did do was to shape my thinking and my emotions toward the things of the spirit. It feeds the good dog, and weakens the bad one.

Paul also tells us that our spirit life, for the time being, is hidden with Christ in God. That means that the condition of your spirit it is not always evident to the world, or even to you. The Greek word for “hidden” in verse three is the basis for our English word cryptic. That means it is sometimes difficult to see or understand.

Paul makes sure, in verse 4, that we know there will come a day when the spirit-life will be fully revealed: fully evident to yourself and to all others. But that does not  change in what is happening with your spirit. It is only a change in that it was hard to see before, and when Jesus returns, it will be fully manifested.

Because we are already perfect and complete and holy in our spirit-self, Paul urges us strongly to seek to focus on  spiritual reality, rather than flesh reality. Let our souls, and then our bodies be influenced primarily by the spirit, rather than the flesh. To do so is not complicated: read your Bible, understanding that spiritual-reality is greater and eternal, while flesh-reality will eventually die. Develop community with other believers who are trying to do the same thing. Pray – have an on going conversation with God all day long. I know of a couple who communicate constantly throughout the day, by phone. They probably call each other dozens of times each day, and often they pass the time while they are doing the shopping or laundry or whatever else, talking to each other even while accomplishing other tasks. We need to do this with Jesus, also. Leave the phone line always open, connected. You can pray while hanging drywall. You can pray while fishing, or grocery shopping, or mowing the yard or entering data. Or, writing a sermon (thanks for that one, Lord.)

Paul says almost the same thing in to the Philippians that he did to the Colossians:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV, Philippians 3:18-21)

Be encouraged. If you know Jesus, all is well in your spirit, not matter what else is going on. You all know that these aren’t just words for me. For five years I’ve felt physically like I have a knife blade broken off in my left kidney. We’ve spent thousands of dollars looking for answers, and received none. But my spirit-reality matters much more than my body-reality. I do get frustrated. I do break down sometimes. But those of you who know me personally also know that my spirit-reality matters more to me than this, and that is why I’m really OK, and will continue to be OK, even if I don’t get healing until I die. This body won’t last forever, but my spirit will. So set your mind, seek, pursue, meditate on, prioritize, things above, things of the spirit, not things of the body and the flesh.

COLOSSIANS #22: THE DANGERS OF RELIGION

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We have died to the basic principles of this world. We don’t have to perform well in order to be accepted by God. Instead, we simply have to trust Jesus, and trust what he has done to us, for us, and with us. Even the apostle Paul was no better than us, and had nothing that we don’t have. All any of us have is Jesus. We can’t add to what Jesus has done, and no one can take Jesus away from us.

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Colossians #22. Colossians 2:20-23

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV)

Remember, Paul is still talking about the big picture of legalism. Legalism is like a ditch on one side of the road of true Christian discipleship. People who fall into the legalism ditch are all about performing correctly. When push comes to shove, deep down, they don’t completely trust the grace of God given in Jesus Christ. They may not admit it, but they often believe that they are better than other people because of how they behave. They don’t admit it, but they think they can earn God’s love and favor by doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong things. Now, the tricky thing is, we should behave differently once we receive the grace of God through Jesus. But our changed behavior should be the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the result of trust in Jesus, not trust in our ability to perform well. It should not make us proud, or make us feel superior to others. It should not be a basis from which we look down on others, or try to control them. It should result from surrender to Jesus, rather than a desire to be in control.

This is our third and final week looking at the dangers of legalism. Paul reminds us that through faith, by grace, we have buried with Christ in baptism. We are dead to sin, dead to the world, and dead to the way the world does things. Every other religion in the world is based upon how we perform. But Christianity is unique in that is based upon the performance of Another: Jesus Christ. We trust HIS performance, not our own.

Verse 20 says that we died to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The Greek word used for “elemental spirits” has another possible translation, and I think the context shows us here that it should probably read: “elementary principles of the world.” The principles of this world are that you need to do certain things in order to get certain results. This is not always wrong or bad: it is often the way the world works. If you want money, you need to do something in order to get it: for instance, get a job. If you want people to be kind to you, you should probably be kind to them. If you want to pass a test at school, you ought to make sure that you know the material. Paul is not saying that these elementary principles are always wrong and bad. But this is not the way to get the Life that is offered to us in Jesus Christ. If it was, we would be doomed, because, born as we are with a sinful nature, we cannot do what it takes to make ourselves holy and acceptable in God’s eyes. The life that we have in Jesus does not operate that way. It is a free gift, through faith. And Paul is saying this: “If you think that fasting, and treating your body harshly, and denying yourself ordinary things will somehow make you more pleasing to God, you are still trying to approach God by the principles of the world.”

This is another road-and-ditch situation. The elemental principles of the world are helpful for living the life we must live in the world. But they cannot be applied to the life of faith in Jesus; certainly not without serious reflection and adaptation.

I want to speak to one specific way that people apply “the elementary principles of the world” to Christianity where they should not. Some people think we control our own futures by the words we say. People who believe this will say things like: “God spoke the world into being, and we are made in the image of God, therefore we speak our future into being. So, we have to be very careful what we say.” Such people are terrified that if they say something negative or depressing, their very words will make the negative thing come true. They think that if they speak only good and positive things, their life will be filled with that. They are trying to apply the “elementary principles of the world” to following Jesus. “If we say the right things, good things will happen. If we say the wrong things, bad things will happen.” There is nothing Biblical or Christian about this idea. The current form of it comes from a book called The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. People have tried to “adapt” it to Christianity, but it doesn’t work with the Bible. It sells us the illusion that we are in control, and if we just say and think the right things, we can have all we want in this life, and avoid anything unpleasant. Instead, the bible teaches us that God is in control, not us.

Paul mentions some other ways people try to apply the elementary principles of the world to Christianity: fasting and other types of severe voluntary deprivation. Fasting, and self-discipline are useful and helpful things for spiritual life – if they are understood properly. Let me use the specific example of fasting. Fasting, by the way, normally means “purposefully going without food.” I have engaged in fasting in the past, and I’ll probably do it again in the future. The reason I fast is to remind myself that I need God even more than I need food. The hunger pangs remind me that he’s there, and that I need him. They also remind me to pray. When it is a “good fast,” the result is that I have a deeper experience of my dependence upon God. But when it is not working for me, I quit fasting, and eat, even if the time I planned for wasn’t up yet. Used in this way, fasting is a useful kind of self-discipline.

However, if you fast because you think it will increase your holiness, you are applying the principles of the world to your relationship with Jesus in a way that is insulting to Jesus. You are believing that somehow humbling yourself through fasting can add to the holiness that you have been freely given in Jesus. The logical progression of this thought is that Jesus did not actually do enough to make you holy, and you are making up for the lack. So, you are not humbling yourself at all, but putting yourself above Jesus!

Fasting is good if you use as a means to remind your flesh that it is going to die someday, and remind your spirit that it is whole and complete in Jesus. Any kind of self-discipline is useful that way. But the minute you think you are earning some kind of holiness or goodness by your works, you are actually sinning in your pride. The minute you think it makes you somehow better than Christians who don’t fast, you are in trouble.

If someone is fasting (or engaging in some kind of self-discipline like that) for the right reason, it will bring them closer to Jesus, but it will not make them proud. Instead, they will feel their dependence upon Jesus even more deeply. They might tell others that there is benefit in doing such things, but they will never insist that others do such things.

If someone is fasting for the wrong reasons, they are likely to be proud of it. They might be passive-aggressive in how they approach it, but they will leave you feeling guilty for not doing what they do. They will often insist upon things that the Bible itself does not insist upon. They fast because it makes them feel holy, or better than others.

I think there are many things we might put in the same category as fasting. For instance, kneeling when you pray. If you kneel because it helps you remember the glory and holiness of God, then good. If you kneel because you want to glorify God through kneeling, then bend those knees! But if you kneel because it makes you feel more pious, or because you think you have to, or because you think everyone ought to, there is a problem. If you kneel because you think it makes you seem holy, your kneeling might even be offensive to God.

Paul wrote elsewhere about people who try to control themselves and others through self-discipline apart from the Holy Spirit:

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV)

Paul himself fasted on several occasions. He engaged in many types of self-discipline, and he even refrained from getting married. But he never insisted that other people should do those things. He found that those things helped him as he walked with Jesus. But he never thought that they made him more holy, or better than anyone else. Paul said this:

7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ 9 and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. (NLT, Philippians 3:7-9)

Paul says in our text today that if you try to control things through harsh self-discipline alone it actually has no value in controlling the impulses of your sinful flesh. Sometimes the Holy Spirit may lead you to fasting, or other kinds of humble behavior. When it is the Spirit doing so, then it is a good thing. But if it is about getting God to do what you want, or about relying upon yourself, or about feeling or looking more holy, Paul says it is both pointless, and even demonic. Certain types of people like to appear holy and righteous to others, and they want to use their religion as a way to look down on others, and even to make others do what they wish. For such people, things like fasting or harsh self-discipline are actually gratifying to their sinful flesh.

So what do we do with all this? Some of us may know people who put pressure on us to appear religious in certain ways. They think we should worship or pray the way they do, or fast, or observe certain festivals, or keep the Sabbath, or any number of things that the Bible neither commands, nor forbids. We do not have to listen to such people. They are free to fast if they want to, but if they use their fasting (or whatever it is they do to seem religious) to make it appear that they are more holy than you, or to put pressure on you, it is likely that they are actually sinning, even though they are doing religious things.

I want to make sure, however, that you read the next few messages after this one. There is another ditch, on the other side of the road, and we will talk about that soon. This is not a blank check to go out and party sinfully, and indulge your sinful flesh. The point us, some people indulge their sinful flesh by abusing religion. Don’t be like them, and don’t listen to them. Don’t let them judge your or disqualify you.

We have died to the basic principles of this world. We don’t have to perform well in order to be accepted by God. Instead, we simply have to trust Jesus, and trust what he has done to us, for us, and with us. Even the apostle Paul was no better than us, and had nothing that we don’t have. All any of us have is Jesus. We can’t add to what Jesus has done, and no one can take Jesus away from us.

COLOSSIANS #21: EYES ON THE PRIZE

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Colossians #21. Colossians 2:18-19

We are continuing from last time. Paul set the stage by telling us to continue to walk in Jesus in the same way we received him: that is, by grace, through faith, not trusting in our own goodness or good works, but trusting Jesus to be enough. He reassures us that we have all the fullness of Christ living inside of us, and in Christ is the fullness of God. Then he again reassures us, telling us that through grace, by faith, we were buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to new life. Our sins have been nailed to the cross of Christ, and so have all the judgments that were against us.

Remember that last time we talked about the picture of a road: the good, safe road is love for Jesus, and through Jesus, love for others. On one side is the ditch of legalism, and the other, lawlessness. In our verses today, Paul is continuing to warn about legalism.

Last time we considered Paul’s exhortation to not let anyone judge us for things that are neither commanded, nor forbidden, by Christ or his apostles. These sorts of things include worship ceremonies, food and drink, church festivals, the day of the week that we worship, and so on. Now, Paul continues his exhortation:

18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.(Colossians 2:18-19)

In verse 16, Paul says, “let no one pass judgment on you.” Now he says, “Let no one disqualify you.” There is a difference in the two. I think it’s worth thinking about. Last time we talked about judging and being judged for things that don’t matter. Now Paul is taking this attitude: You already have the prize: Jesus Christ. Everything you need is found in that prize. Therefore, don’t let anyone suggest you don’t have all that you need already to be a Christian. Don’t let anyone put doubt in your mind about whether or not you’ve been given the prize. Don’t let anyone shake you loose from the prize that you already have.

Paul talks about a certain kind of person who might try to say that you have been disqualified. This is someone who insists upon false humility. The NIV translates the Greek this way, while other versions use “asceticism,” but I think false humility captures the sense of it.

This is a tricky one, because true humility is an important part of following Jesus. Just as Jesus knew who he was, yet felt no need to rub the noses of others in it, so we should be the same. We don’t need to insist on our own way, even if we know we are right. We don’t need to insist on receiving the honor that we might rightly deserve. We should delight in honoring others, even if we don’t get the honor we think we should have. We don’t have to pretend to be less intelligent, or weaker, or less attractive than we are, but neither do we need to insist that everyone recognize these things. We can be humble in this way because we know that God knows who we are, and nothing we do escapes his notice. Through Jesus, he honors us, even when others fail to do so when they should.

And we should live with a recognition that everything we are, and everything we are capable of doing, are gifts from God, not something we somehow got for ourselves. It is not as if we were smart, or beautiful, or strong because we designed our own physical bodies. This is true, even when we have worked hard to use what we have. For example, say I have worked hard to study the Bible and be good at teaching it to others. But I was given the ability to learn and understand, and without that gift, my hard work would not have amounted to much. If I had not been given the opportunity to take time to learn and to have good people to teach me, my hard work would have come to nothing. Even my own motivation and self-discipline to work hard was originally given to me by God. This is true of each one of us, no matter what area of life we have become good at. True humility recognizes these things.

It might be helpful to use the road analogy. This is a smaller road, the road of true humility. On one side is the ditch of no humility (overt pride) and the other is false humility. So, false humility is something different from the real thing. False humility is a tool used by some to try to either shame or control other people. It can be very dangerous, because it is also, often, very subtle. Someone who is humble in a false way puts their pious Christian behavior on display. It is hard to argue with them, because they seem so spiritual and right. They might even say words that are good, but you can see from their tone that something else is going on. They often find ways demonstrate (sometimes without even saying it) that you aren’t as religious as they are. Some of these people might also insist upon some sort of outward pious behavior. This could involve telling people that they must fast at certain times, or implying that they ought to pray a certain way, or do certain specific good works. Usually, you will feel like you have to do these things in order for such a person to accept you as a real Christian. Now, it is good to fast. It is good to do good works. But we cannot insist upon certain fasts or certain good works. Especially, it is wrong to think that those things earn us special favor in the eyes of God.

Paul warns about two additional types of things that such people might be involved in. First the worship of angels. This is more or less a literal translation of the Greek, and it leaves us a with a slight problem. Does it mean that certain people worship angels? Or does it mean that some people claim to know how the angels worship God, and insist that we should worship the same way?

We might not be wrong to take it both ways, but I lean toward the second, for various reasons. In the first place, Paul is talking to Christians, and Christians are pretty clear that we must worship God alone, and never worship anyone else, not even an angel. In the Bible, several times, angels themselves told people not to worship them. (for example, Revelation 19:9-10)

Paul has been talking about things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and the way we worship falls mostly into that category, so I think that this the point here. We know that there are some things we should do as we worship (like praising God, and praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper) but the way we do those things is more or less up to us, as long as we honor the Lord. We are certainly never told to find out how angels worship, and then to imitate that.

The next thing Paul warns about it someone who has an unhealthy obsession with visions, and is probably proud about the visions and spiritual experiences she has had. As I describe this, keep the idea of the ditches in mind. All of these things might be done in healthy ways that honor God and encourage other Christians. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. At the same time, many people do engage in behavior that seems spiritual on the surface, but is full of false humility, real pride and with no true connection to Jesus, the head of the body.

Let me describe some of what Paul is warning about. For several years, I tried to be a part of a certain pastors’ group. I never felt comfortable in that group. One reason I didn’t like it is because whenever we met, it sounded to me like the pastors were boasting, under cover of false humility. They might say things like this:

“We felt like we ought to hold a revival. We brought 176 souls to Jesus in one week.  All we were doing was stepping out in obedience to the Lord, and he provided.”

When I write these words, I realize that you can’t hear the tone of voice, or see the expression. But when it was spoken, it was clear that this person was proud as a peacock about the revival, and felt pretty sure that 176 people came to the altar because he was the best preacher this side of Memphis. These are spiritual words. We should be glad that 176 people came to Jesus (if in fact that’s truly what happened). He gave lip-service to the idea that it was God who did it, but he made sure to not only tell us the number of people, but also to emphasize his own act of stepping out in obedience. This is someone who uses spiritual words and spiritual activities to build himself up, especially in contrast to others.

Another time we pastors were gathered around a meal, and someone volunteered to bless the food. His prayer probably lasted three minutes, which is a long time when you’re hungry, and completely unnecessary for a table prayer. Certainly, the “thank you for the food part,” took less than ten seconds, and the rest of the prayer was spent on other things. Mostly what I remember is that his prayer proved that he was eloquent, and spiritual, and that he had a great speaking voice. It felt like a competition, and he had just thrown down a challenge. He even sort of smirked when he was done, sort of like: “Try and beat that, fellas.” That was the last day I spent with that gathering.

Now, it is good for pastors to gather together. It is good to talk about what’s going on with our ministries. It’s good to pray. But we can do that in a way that is genuine and that builds each other up. Or, as with my experiences, we can engage in false humility.

I was part of another prayer group for about two years. I really connected with some of the people there. But prayer became a performance. Everyone began to pray very long prayers, with many words where few words would have been sufficient. Their attitude was something like, “Why use two sentences when we could make it last five minutes?” Their voices trembled with emotion, and their words were replete with thick eloquence. In short, they were showing off. Every week I thought of what Jesus said:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (ESV, Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus says, don’t do that, don’t be like them, yet these Christians did that again and again, every week for the two years I was with them, and presumably much longer.

Let’s cover the next thing Paul mentions: an obsession with visions. I believe in the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit today. I believe the Spirit empowers miracles of all kinds – everything that we see in the New Testament is still happening today, and can still happen among you and I. But once again, there are ditches here. One ditch is to say that God does not speak in any way at all except through the Bible. The other ditch is to become obsessed with the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. People who are obsessed are often much more interested in the supernatural activities than they are in the fact that the Spirit of God lives inside those who trust Jesus, and has power to change lives from the inside out. They are very concerned about the outward, dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while they do not cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their own daily lives: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

The Spirit of God will never contradict what is written in the Bible. So, if someone speaks about a vision that does not seem to be in accordance with the Bible, then that vision is not from the Holy Spirit.

Some folks may have prophecies or visions that don’t directly contradict the Bible. However, they seem to give as much, or more, weight to the visions as to the Bible. The fact that they have a supernatural experience makes them feel superior to those who have not. Their focus is not on Jesus, and not on the Bible, which reveals Jesus to us. Instead, their focus is on their own special revelation, which, even if it is genuine, is not as important as the Bible.

I want to speak about a few more types of people who might try to disqualify us (or make us believe we are disqualified) from the kingdom of God. For instance, I know a couple of people who live by faith in a fairly unique way. They don’t have regular jobs. They wake up in the morning, and look for whatever opportunities the Lord seems to be putting before them, and, as best they can, they follow his leading. They have some amazing and wonderful stories of God’s work and provision. There are also problems and pitfalls with this sort of life that, sadly, these people seem blind to. They might empty their bank accounts for a homeless person they just met, but then they go home and refuse to help their families with simple household chores. They are focused on big dramatic gestures, and they are easily bored or irritated by the ordinary things involved with following Jesus every day.

Related to this are people who feel a certain kind of calling on their lives, and then they try to impose their unique calling onto everyone else. The two I mentioned above seem to think that everyone should live the way they do. Here’s another example: suppose I am called to overseas missionary work. If I was an immature Christian, I might think that my passion for missions means that every single Christian should be a missionary. If I met someone who claimed to be a Christian, yet they weren’t missionaries, I would judge them. Now, I could make a pretty good case from the Bible that missions is important. But I might overlook the fact that if everyone went overseas as missionaries, there would be no Christians left in my home country to lead people to Jesus, and, also, no one left to give financial support to all the missionaries.

We are all called to follow Jesus. Certain parts of following Him are the same for every single person. But we are also all unique members of the body of Christ. Just because one person is called to a certain type of ministry and lifestyle, does not mean every person is:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:14)

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:17-20)

Our text here is to remind us that we should not let such people disqualify us. They aren’t better Christians than you, because you, dear friends have Jesus. Jesus is the sum total of what any of us has – no Christian has any more, or any less than Jesus. Long winded eloquent prayers do not make us into God’s favorite disciples.  Supernatural experiences and visions cannot replace the everyday, ordinary life of following Jesus, and they sometimes even hinder people from day-to-day discipleship. Don’t be fooled by their cloak of piousness. You, dear friends, focus on Jesus. He is the head from which the holy body is nourished and grows. If you want true life, abundant, everlasting life, spend your time, energy and strength on Jesus, getting closer to him.

COLOSSIANS #20:THE WRONG WAY TO USE THE LAW

law.jpg

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I think this sermon contains two extremely important concepts; ideas that we will use over and over as we cover the rest of Colossians. Please download the audio and/or save the written version so that you can refer to it again in the future.

Colossians #20  Colossians 2:16-17

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Important concept #1: The Two Ditches.

Before we jump into these verses, we need a broader context about the teachings of the Bible. Martin Luther compared following Jesus to riding a horse. He suggested it is possible to fall off either the right side of the horse, or the left side. In these days, I like the analogy of a road with two deep ditches. You might veer off into the left hand ditch, or the right hand one, and if you do, you end up in trouble. Ideally you stay in the middle, on the road.

Let’s call the right-hand ditch “legalism.” If you go this direction, you start to think that following Jesus is all about behaving correctly. The problem is that there is a tiny bit of truth in legalism. Our behavior should change once we have received the grace of God through Jesus. But it changes because God is changing us through the Holy Spirit, not because we have to earn credit from him. If you are in the legalism ditch, instead of recognizing that right behavior is a result of a true faith, you think (maybe unconsciously) that if you behave correctly, you prove that you are worthy of God. Without realizing it, you start to think that God blesses you because you are a good person. Certainly you aren’t like those other people. People in this ditch are sometimes proud (but often they hide their pride behind pious talk and behavior). They are at least as concerned with how other people behave as with their own lives, and frequently they focus not on what is in their hearts, but rather, what they do (or keep away from doing). They think (sometimes only hinting, but not saying directly) that when people suffer, it is because God is punishing them for their sin. This is a dangerous ditch, even more so because many of those who fall into it think that they are good, Christian folks. They are so busy trying to appear righteous that other people might think of them as strong Christians as well, while in reality, they are offending God by thinking that their “righteous” acts amount to anything.

The truth, of course, is that God’s punishment for sin is death and hell, not troubles in this life, and Jesus already took that punishment for those who trust Him. We cannot earn God’s love or favor, and our attempts to do so are offensive to God. All human beings have been judged equally guilty and unworthy, and all human beings are saved only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After receiving Jesus, the good works we do are not about earning anything from God; they are about responding to the new life given to us by the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus.

There is another dangerous ditch – the left hand ditch, which I will call “lawlessness.” This ditch also contains a tiny bit of truth: That Jesus paid all for our sins, and there is nothing we can add to that payment. But “lawless” people take it beyond what it means. These folks think that anything goes. If Christ paid for all my sins, past present and future, then why does it matter how I behave? Why not get drunk, or high, when I feel like it? Why not have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want? Why not get everything I can for myself, and live as comfortably as possible, no matter what that does to others around me? Why pay attention to anything except what I really want?

The problem with the lawless ditch is that it does not recognize that receiving Jesus Christ changes a person. The life of Christ that is in you through the Holy Spirit does not want to get drunk. It does not want to indulge the desires of the flesh. The Holy Spirit is God, and the character of God is holy, not lawless or self-indulgent. Sinning is like throwing pig-manure on the person who saved your life. If you really believe he saved you, you won’t want to do that; certainly, at least, a significant part of you will not want to.

The middle, the safe and good road, I call love. It is love for Jesus for who he is, and what he has done, and love for other people because Jesus loves them too. Love is other focused, not self-focused. Love manifests the character of God. Love puts the desires of Jesus above my own, and the good of others equal to my own.

Starting here, Paul is going to warn the Colossians about the two ditches. He begins with a warning about the ditch of legalism. In Colossae, at the time Paul wrote, the legalists typically felt that everyone should follow Jewish laws. They thought Christians should observe the kosher laws of the Old Testament (what you eat and drink) and also observe the Jewish festivals, the sabbath regulations and so on. These laws are found in various places in the Old Testament, but 2 Chronicles gives us a summary:

At that time Solomon offered burnt offerings to the LORD on the LORD’s altar he had made in front of the portico. He followed the daily requirement for offerings according to the commandment of Moses for Sabbaths, New Moons, and the three annual appointed festivals: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Shelters.(CSB 2 Chronicles 8:12-14)

The disadvantage of taking the scripture verse by verse is that we might forget the context we are in. Paul has been talking about walking in Christ. He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and Christ dwells inside of us, through the Holy Spirit. When we were still dead in our sins, when our flesh was still in control of us, Jesus died for us. One consequence of his death was that the law that rightly condemned us was fulfilled, and so made irrelevant to those who are in Christ. It is no longer a basis for judging personal righteousness. We no longer have to live by it.

“Therefore,” says Paul, “let no one pass judgment you…” The first things he mentions are parts of the Jewish law. These things, along with kosher regulations, and laws about ancient Israel, are just a shadow, pointing to Jesus. The reality of them is fulfilled and found in Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews agrees:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. (NLT, Hebrews 10:1)

Unfortunately, some people are strangely confused about this. I think it is because they are inclined to listen to human beings more than actually reading the Bible. I know a few Christian families who think it is wrong to eat pork, for instance. What puzzles me is that they don’t follow all of the other kosher regulations. They don’t have two sinks, or two refrigerators, or avoid cheeseburgers. Perhaps I am in danger of judging them, but it is very clear here that what we eat or drink has nothing to do with salvation. Trying to follow one small part of the Jewish food laws, as a requirement of following Jesus, is nonsensical.

2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. 4 For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. (NLT, Galatians 5:2-4)

Paul said this about circumcision, but it applies to any part of the Jewish law. We are saved by Jesus, by God’s grace through faith alone. If you think avoiding pork contributes in any way to your salvation, then you must obey every single part of the law perfectly. If you think observing the sabbath or Jewish festivals is necessary for true Christians, then you are obligated to follow the whole law perfectly. No. Paul is clear: these things are a shadow of the good reality. Jesus Christ is the actual good reality.

Now, what all is contained in this? What I mean is, most Christians eat pork, but we still think that committing adultery is a sin. The command about adultery was originally in the Old Testament. So how do we know what we are supposed to follow literally, and what we aren’t? Let’s look at important concept #2: How we handle the “law parts” of the Bible.

If we actually read our Bibles, it isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The New Testament makes it clear that the food laws are not necessary – in fact, it does so in our verses for today, as well as several other places (Mark 7:14-18; Acts 15:1-29; Romans 14:14 & 20). Our verses today also make it clear that we don’t have to follow the Jewish festivals, or sabbath day regulations – these were fulfilled in Christ. All of the Jewish worship regulations are just shadows of the reality in Jesus – the temple, the sacrifices, the priests’ clothing and everything to do with temple or tabernacle worship (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). All of the regulations that were about ancient Israel no longer apply literally. Things about the types of clothing to wear, or stoning adulterers, and so on – these were all given for a particular nation at a particular time in history. They can still tell us about God and point us to Jesus, but we are not supposed to follow them literally.

The moral laws of the Old Testament are different. Jesus, and his apostles, affirmed the moral truth of the ten commandments. These still serve two purposes: 1) To show us that we can’t be good enough, therefore we need Jesus. 2) To show us the kind of character we should be developing as we follow Jesus. In other words, we still ought to do our best to live by these moral laws, because that is what the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of us, wants to do. These moral laws are a reflection of the character of God. When we fail, we fall back on the forgiveness of Jesus, but we continue on away from sin, toward God. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the lawlessness ditch.

So, let’s think about some application of this “let no one pass judgment on you…”While most of us don’t worry about how Jewish we are, there are some of us who became Christians later on in life. We’ve done things in the past that we regret; things we might even feel ashamed of. Sometimes, we encounter Christians who seem to have together, people who have been following Jesus all their lives. These folks should not make you feel inferior, or second class. We all stand on the same ground at the foot of the cross. Let no one pass judgment on you for your past – it is past. You might also make sure that you are not passing judgment upon yourself for your past.

Certain groups of believers say that we must not use musical instruments as part of worship. Others say we must follow certain liturgies and prayers when we worship. Some say we must not drink a single drop of alcohol. Others insist that true Christians worship on Saturdays, not Sundays. Others claim we must celebrate the traditional seasons, fasts and feasts of the historic church.

Paul says none of these things can be an occasion for passing judgment upon Christians. These things are not the substance that is Christ. They are external. They don’t affect a person’s heart. They may be useful, or they may not.

Let’s make sure we understand. So for example, if someone does not want to use instruments in worship, we should not pass judgment upon them. If someone wants to use traditional liturgies and church festivals, or even ancient Jewish festivals, we should not judge them for it. By the way, those of us in the House Church movement should be careful not to become judgmental of others. We know that House Church is Biblical, and we know how many tremendous advantages it has. But it is not commanded by scripture (nor, of course, forbidden). I might think you’re missing out if you don’t do house church, but I can’t say it is the only right way to do church. I cannot pass judgment on you if you don’t want to do church that way.

I want to add another thing. If someone says: “No one must use musical instruments in worship” or, “no one should eat pork,” or “Everyone should use this kind of liturgy,” we can judge their words. We aren’t passing judgment on them as people, but we can say: “No, that isn’t what the Bible says. You can choose to be that way if you like, but the Bible does not say you have to. It certainly does not say I have to.” We should not allow someone to judge us for such things.

One reason I love Lutheran theology is that it is very Biblical. Many centuries ago, the first Lutherans put forth this teaching in their own words:

“We believe, teach and confess unanimously that the ceremonies or church usages which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God, but which have been introduced solely for the sake of good order and the general welfare, are in and for themselves no divine worship or even a part of it…

We believe, teach and confess that the community of God in every locality and every age has authority to change such ceremonies according to circumstances as it may be most profitable and edifying to the community of God.” Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article X, paragraphs 1 & 2).

This verse is supposed to be freeing. The Gentile believers in Colossae felt second class, and Jewish folks didn’t mind them feeling that way. But they (and we) have all the fullness of Christ living in us, and in Christ lives all the fullness of God. All basis for judgment against us has been taken away and nailed to the cross. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

Some Questions for reflection:

  • What things make you feel like a second class Christian? Why do you think you feel that way?
  • What unimportant things are you tempted to use as a basis for judging other Christians?
  • What unimportant things have been used to judge you?
  • Which “ditch” are you tempted to veer towards: that of legalism, or lawlessness? Why do you think that is?

COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (ESV, John 14:6)

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

COLOSSIANS #16: GROW LIKE A TREE, NOT LIKE A WEED

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Sometimes our  Christian culture can give us the idea that we ought to be constantly having amazing spiritual feelings and experiences. But at best, that idea is distorted. The message of this text – the message of the Bible – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. This applies to both churches and individual Christians. Growth is something Jesus does in us and for us. He uses simple, straightforward means to grow us, and anyone can participate in those means.

COLOSSIANS
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Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

Remember last time, we considered the very important phrase: “as you received Christ as Lord, so continue in him.” Verse 7 is connected to that thought:

You have been and will continue to be rooted in him. You are being firmly built up in faith, you are being established in accordance with what you were taught, and you overflow with thanksgiving. (my own translation/paraphrase from Greek)

The verbs here are all present tense, passive voice. What that means is that they are describing something that is being done to you, and that continues to be done to you. We talked about how we received Jesus not by doing good things, but by trusting that he has already done them. So he is also rooting us (that is connecting us deeply to him). He is building us up in faith, he is establishing us – that is giving us a firm foundation in Christ. All of this is according to what we were taught, that is, according to the Bible. And it results in joyful gratitude on our part.

As we think about all this, a few things come to mind. First, in our mortal lives right now, following Jesus is something of a process. We are being rooted in him, built up in faith and established. It is ongoing. It isn’t that one moment we are godless pagans, and the next we are ready to be missionaries or monks. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is working to enlarge our spirits, to wean us away from our sinful flesh, and to draw us more and more into His abundant life. We should also make sure to understand that these words apply not only to individuals, but also to church communities. People in those days were just as likely to think of themselves in terms of “us” as often, or more, as “me.”

The words used to describe the process are not dramatic. Instead they indicate patient, deep growth. First, we are being rooted. If you think about the plant world, you can’t even see roots growing. That all happens beneath the surface. Roots are vital to the survival of any plant, but roots are not flashy. They are not quick. They grow slowly and hidden.

When we think about the next one, being built up, we can see something happening in that process. However, in Paul’s day, before modern technology, buildings took a great deal of time to take shape. In the ancient Mediterranean world the majority of the buildings would have been made out of stone. The stone had to be cut by hand, hauled by hand, or horse, and put in place by hand. The ingredients of the mortar had to be ground (perhaps with the assistance of a some sort of primitive mill) and mixed by hand. So, though you can see the results of building up, that too, takes a lot of time.

Then we come to being established. Again, this is something we can’t really see. Being established, in this context, means that we are firmly set in Jesus. An established business is one that has been there for a long time, and has roots in the community, and strong financial and marketing practices. An established fact is one that is not in doubt. When we are established in Christ, We have strong spiritual practices (reading, praying, serving), and a meaningful connection to Christian community (church). When we are established, whatever comes, we won’t be shaken from the foundation we have in him.

Being rooted, built up and established is all in accordance with what we were taught. Paul is referring to the teaching of the Apostles, which, these days, we call “The Bible.” The Bible is one of the primary places in which we get to know Jesus, and by which we give him access to our lives. The other ways are based upon the Bible: the sacraments (especially communion, since it happens regularly) and Christian community. If we cut ourselves off from any of these three (The Bible, The sacraments or Christian community) it will interfere with the growth that the Lord wants to provide.

I want us to understand what good news this is. In the first place, these are all things being done to us by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t rooting ourselves, or building ourselves. The Spirit is doing it. All we have to do to receive it is to trust Him.

Now he does use certain methods to root us and establish us in Jesus. But these are not complicated. And if we really do trust Jesus, at least a part of us will actually want to do these things. Anyone can read the Bible, or listen to it in an audio version. Anyone can receive the sacraments. Anyone can be part of a church. It doesn’t require something exceptional on our part to grow in Jesus. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person. We don’t have to have certain kinds of experiences or emotions or passions.

Sometimes, our present Christian culture in the Western world seems to push toward having big, exciting experiences, filled with wonderful feelings. It seems like we are supposed to always feel these amazing emotions toward God. We are supposed to be continually blown away by what God is doing in our lives. Think of a typical worship video. There’s a huge crowd. The people on stage are raising their hands and singing with deep emotion. The music creates a big atmosphere. Cut to the crowd where people stand with their hands up, tears streaming down their faces or kneel, shaking with feeling.

I don’t think that sort of thing is bad in and of itself, but it tends to send a misleading message. It encourages us to think we should move from one high to the next. We think maybe there is something wrong if we aren’t moving in a huge, obvious, upward spiritual trajectory. We think we must be terrible Christians if our faith doesn’t look like those YouTube worship videos.

But that isn’t the case. The message of this text – which is the Bible, not a worship video – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. I have amazing spiritual experiences once in a while. Probably not more than once or twice a year, probably less, and they last only a few minutes. And it might be that Jesus gives me them that often because I’m not normally an emotional person, and he wants me to grow in that area. These spiritual experiences are great. But they are not the substance of my faith. I would grow even without them, because it is Jesus who causes me to grow.

This is really important. Yes, we should be growing as Christians. But the pace and type of growth are up to Jesus. The growth comes not because we earn it, but because we trust him. We may not even be able to see some of it. Think about roots again. You don’t really know how good the roots of a tree are until a storm comes. Then, and only then, you can tell if a tree’s roots are strong or not. If you are worried about the rate of your growth, trust Jesus. Ask him to cause you to grow, and trust him to do it. Don’t fight with him about basics like reading your Bible, and praying, and being involved with Christian community, but understand even if you do all that, you won’t grow unless Jesus makes it happen.

I also want you to think of these things in terms of your local church. It is easy to get impatient with your church. But here, spiritual growth for both individuals and churches is described in terms that are slow, gradual and patient. Yes, there are big, exciting churches out there. It is not my job to judge them but I realized years ago that spiritual reality can be very different from how things look on the surface. Not every big, exciting-seeming church is spiritually healthy or pleasing to the Lord.

I want to consider the next piece: overflowing with thanksgiving.

I think it is clear that thankfulness also has great power to transform our attitudes and thoughts. It is very difficult to be both bitter and thankful at the same time. It is hard to thank God profusely for what he has done for me, and, at the same time, be angry at him. When we thank God, it helps us to focus on what is good, and ultimately on the Good Giver. Being thankful to the Lord for all things, including my pain, has been part of the transformation for me of turning my struggle into a blessing.

But thankfulness is more than just a way to manipulate us into a positive attitude.

Thankfulness is both a result of, and a means to, trust in Jesus. The more we really believe what he has done for us, and learn about it, the more grateful we will be. On the other hand, thankfulness helps us to receive in faith what Jesus has given us. You can’t touch forgiveness with your hands. You can’t touch love, or hope, or grace or joy. But when we thank God for these things, we receive them more deeply in our hearts. Thanking him helps us receive, and also strengthens our connection to the One who gives.

I am not naturally a grateful person, perhaps because I have had so many good things handed to me during my life. But I have found that if I can find some way to start thanking God, even for something quite small and insignificant, it gives the Holy Spirit a crack to work with. Then I gradually become more and more thankful, for deeper and more important things. So I might start as I shower, thanking the Lord for hot water, or even just running water. Then I might thank him that I have the ability to stand up and take a shower. I’ll thank him for water. That might remind me of my baptism, and so I thank him for adopting me as his child and giving me the Holy Spirit. And so on.

Some thoughts for application:

  • Have you been tempted to be impatient with yourself or your church because growth seems so slow? How does this text address your impatience?
  • Have you thought that your spiritual growth all depends on your own efforts? What does this text say to you about that?
  • What are some things that you can be thankful for? Take ten minutes (time yourself!) to thank God for various things, big and small.