Sermon: The Abuse of Power and the Power of Love

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150 people from 20+ different black and white churches gathered for a meal and to get to know one another on Sunday afternoon, July 26, 2015, at Banister Bend Farm near Chatham, VA.

Last Sunday, I preached from 2 Samuel 11:1-15, which is the story of David’s abuse of power when he saw, sent for, and violated Bathsheba. To further compound his sin, David sought to cover it up, and eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed.

It is a shameful story, but it is also a story that is a current as today’s headlines. In the sermon, I moved from the story of David’s abuse of power to the history of the abuse of power in American life during the era of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and today. I offered this sermon treatment because that Sunday afternoon, white and black congregations were scheduled to gather for a meal and conversation together about race relations in our own community. This sermon prompted our congregation to examine our historical past, so that we could move forward to a more hopeful and inclusive future. Here’s the podcast:

Sermon: How The Mighty Have Fallen

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800px-USSupremeCourtWestFacadeWhat a week this has been for our nation! I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow in light of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the debates over the Confederate flag, and The Supreme Court ruling that marriage is a right open to all couples, including those of the same sex. If there ever has been a time in the life of our nation and community to address these concerns, this week has provided that opportunity.

How The Mighty Have Fallen

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 NIV

After the death of Saul, David returned from striking down the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days.

17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

20 “Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

21 “Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

22 “From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

23 Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

24 “Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

27 “How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished.”

A Week of Extraordinary Change

To say this has been an extraordinary week is an understatement. And, I hope you will bear with me as I read this manuscript today because I want to be very precise in choosing what I say and how I say it.

When we gathered this time last week our hearts were broken for our brothers and sisters in the Emanuel AME Church congregation. Nine of their members, including their pastor, had been gunned down during a Bible study in their church on the Wednesday night before last Sunday.

In the midst of that tragedy, we were astonished at the grace and forgiveness offered to the hate-filled assassin by those who had lost loved ones. We marvelled at the courage, dignity, and resilience with which Charleston and the Mother Emanuel community faced this tragedy.

In keeping with their response, many of us gathered in front of the Pittsylvania County courthouse this past Monday. Black and white together we prayed for those who had been killed, the martyrs of Mother Emanuel. We prayed for our own community, asking God to spare us a similar tragedy. Most importantly, we held hands — black and white — to say to this community, “We are one!”

I am very proud of you because many of you came out last Monday and stood and prayed with us. Others called to say that previous commitments kept them from coming, but they were with us in spirit.

I sense we passed a milestone in our community last Monday. My prayer is that we will make the most of this opportunity to continue to get to know each other, to talk about our community, and to work together to make it truly united.

Along with the tragedy, came an opportunity for those of us in the South to rethink an historic social symbol, the Confederate flag. While 150 years of post-Civil War argument failed to achieve consensus on the appropriate display of the Confederate flag, one photograph of a hateful young white man brandishing a pistol in one hand and the Confederate flag in the other accomplished. That one photograph moved political and business leaders to action.

Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina took the extraordinary position that the Confederate flag that flew on the grounds of the state capitol should be removed. She was joined in that position by United States Senator Lindsey Graham, and by the grandson of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. No matter what decision the South Carolina legislature makes, the public stand of these political leaders was extraordinary. Not long after that, Alabama removed the Confederate flag from its capitol grounds.

Here in Virginia, Governor McAuliffe ordered that the emblem of the Confederate flag on the Sons of Confederacy license plates be deleted. Governor McAuliffe was aided in that decision by a recent Supreme Court ruling. The Court held that the state of Texas could prohibit the use of the Confederate flag on license plates because license plates are a type of “state speech,” and the state could not be compelled to “speak” for special interests.

But, the big ruling came on Friday. The Supreme Court, divided 5-4 as it often is, ruled that the right to marry is a constitutionally-protected right which extends to all couples including those of the same sex.

I can’t recall a more extraordinary week in the course of our nation in my lifetime, with the exception of the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954 which ended school segregation.

I will return to how we address all of these topics in just a moment, but first let’s look at the Scripture reading for today.

The Deaths of Saul and Jonathan

In the passage we read this morning, Saul and his son, Jonathan have been killed in battle against the Philistines. Saul has ruled Israel for 42 years (1 Samuel 13:1).  But, his kingship has been under a cloud since Saul disobeyed God early in his reign. Saul did two things that God did not like. First, he offered a sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel, the prophet-priest, to offer it. Secondly, Saul did not carry out God’s command to do battle with the Amalekites, and to completely annihilate them.

Whatever we think today of the instruction to Saul to kill all the Amalekites, including men, women, children, and all their flocks and herds, the point for us today is that Saul disobeyed God. That disobedience caused Samuel again to rebuke Saul and to prophesy that God has torn the kingdom from Saul, just as Saul had torn Samuel’s cloak when Saul grabbed him.

In his final battle with the Philistines, Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, are killed. Jonathan and David have become close friends over the decades of Saul’s rule. They are such good friends that Jonathan warns David that his father, Saul, is trying to kill David.

Ironically, the nation of Israel wanted a king to lead them to victory of the Philistines, but at the end of Saul’s reign the Philistines controlled more territory than they controlled at the beginning.

Nevertheless, when news of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths reaches David, he is grief-stricken. David had passed on several chances to kill Saul because each time he had decided that he could not kill the Lord’s anointed.

So, Saul and Jonathan’s deaths become an occasion for mourning for David and the nation. David instructs that the men of Judah to learn the Song of the Bow contained in the Book of Jashar.

We no longer have the Book of Jashar, but the writer of Samuel includes the Song of the Bow in this passage. The song is a lament for a fallen leader, much as David is lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

The Song of the Bow recalls the heroics and nobility of the fallen leader. It recounts his valor in battle, and inserts the names of Saul and Jonathan as heroes of the nation’s wars.

But three times, the Song of the Bow laments “How the mighty have fallen.” (2 Samuel 1:19, 25, and 27).  And, that is my point today. Just as the mighty Saul and Jonathan could be brought down in battle, the mighty are always susceptible to defeat and loss.

Saul’s failing, among others, was his own arrogance and pride. He assumed positions he was not entitled to assume, and he replaced God’s command with his own judgment.

The Bible states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 NIV.

That brings us back to the events of this past week. How can we learn from Saul’s failures, so that it is not said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”

How Do We Respond?

What is our response as a community of faith to the events of this past week? To the shootings in a Charleston church? To the debate about the Confederate flag? To the ruling of the Supreme Court on same sex marriage?

First, let me set the stage for my answers to each of those questions. I am a pastor. I am your pastor. The word pastor means one who is a shepherd, one who cares for the flock. I perform my pastoral duties faithfully by caring for you. At times that means comforting you when you have mourned. Or rejoicing with you when you have good news to share. Or challenging you when we need to make a decision for the good of the congregation.

But always, foremost in my mind is my responsibility as your pastor. You are my flock. I pray for you. I check on you when you’re sick. I visit you when you need pastoral care or guidance. I counsel you when you have questions or concerns. My first priority is your spiritual health and wholeness.

That means that while I may have opinions about all of these issues, just like you do,  my opinions are less important than my relationship with you. I am your pastor. That means I do not have the luxury of saying anything I want to on social media like Facebook or Twitter because what I say reflects on this congregation. I am aware of that responsibility.

Whenever we face decisions or challenges, I have a responsibility to pastor this church consistent with the views and values of this congregation. On those rare occasions when I have had a question about a pastoral function, I have sought counsel from the Deacons and they have guided me wisely.

I am not an itinerant prophet who stands apart from you with harsh words and then moves on to the next audience. I am not a bishop who oversees you and commands your ecclesiastical loyalty. I am your pastor, and I want you to know today that I take my role and responsibility as your pastor very seriously.

On these issues, and others we will face, I believe that we as a church must have a conversation and reach consensus on what we believe, whether we make that position known publicly or not.

Having said that, let’s return to the manner in which I believe we should respond to these issues.

First, we should respond in love. Whether we are discussing racial reconciliation or same-sex marriage, we have to be loving. Christians often damage their witness with hasty, ill-conceived responses to the latest blog post or newspaper headline. The church is to be the light of the world, not just an additional source of heat.

Whether we agree with others or not, our responses must be loving because that is what Jesus would do. It was only in response to the self-assured, arrogant religious leaders that Jesus was himself sharp and prophetic. With others like the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the dishonest tax collector, the outcast Mary Magdalene, and other seekers Jesus was redemptive and loving.

We also must be loving because there are people we know personally who are affected by these issues. Most people today know someone who is gay. We respect these people because they are our neighbors or coworkers, or because we’re related to them. Whatever our relationship with them, we want the best for them, just as we do for ourselves.

Secondly, we should respond humbly. If Saul’s sin was arrogance and pride, we face the danger of falling into the same pit. These issues are neither simple, nor do they have simple solutions. I have studied the issues of race, racism, and reconciliation extensively.  The more I read and study, the more I realize how complex all of these social issues are. So, we approach all of these issues with humility. We neither know all the answers, nor do we understand the full scope of the problems.

In my book, The Reconciling Community, I suggested that there are five criteria for a church ministry of reconciliation:

  1. Remember our past and build on what is best about our history and heritage.
  2. Acknowledge that our past also contained prejudice and discrimination.
  3. Engage in mutual conversation and confession with those with whom our church is seeking reconciliation.
  4. Act with humility, in our words, our attitudes, and our actions particularly in how we as the majority race relate to minorities.
  5. Demonstrate a shared commitment to work together with others to transform community institutions including churches, schools, civic clubs, criminal justice agencies, local businesses, and other institutions where needed. (The Reconciling Community, pg. 98-100)

In other words, in the area of racial reconciliation for example, we have to get on the same side as our black brothers and sisters. Their goals of equality and opportunity have to become important to us, too. We approach that work humbly because no white person has any idea of what it is like to be black.

That is exactly what happened here in Chatham on Monday. Black and white citizens gathered at the courthouse because our black brothers and sisters were grieving. We prayed with them, we grieved together the loss of nine lives, we stood together to say that in this community when one of us is assaulted, we are all injured.

As our community reconciliation group continues to dialogue, we as members of this church have to conduct ourselves with humility. And humility means we don’t have all the answers. Jesus reminded us that we don’t point out the mote in someone else’s eye until we have acknowledged the beam in our own. (Matthew 7:1-6)

Thirdly, we should respond honestly. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t understand this issue.” Or, “knowing what I know now, I don’t agree with you on this issue.” Frankly, there are aspects of the issues involving human sexuality I do not know nearly enough about. I look forward to learning and to understanding these issues more fully.

However, our honesty is not an excuse for insensitivity or rudeness. Nor is honesty an excuse for refusing to hear those who hold other positions. Until we can honestly acknowledge our own limitations, we cannot begin to understand others.

Fourth, we should stay engaged in the conversation. The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and much dramatic change has come in the last 10 years. Some of that change we have embraced, some of it puzzles us, and some of it offends us. But the only way forward is to continue to talk, continue to try to understand, continue to look at how our own theology shapes our thoughts and actions.

Our church is facing its own challenges, challenges that did not exist in previous years. At the height of our influence, probably in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century, this congregation did some extraordinary things. We helped found Hargrave Military Academy. We planted Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church, and we wielded influence in community and denominational life.

Thankfully our contributions did not end there. In the past 11 years, we have reached back to our past, building on the best of our heritage. We helped start the Boys and Girls Club, we helped build a community center, and we host a community music school. In addition, our ministry to seniors through our Adult Fellowship and bus trips has enriched the lives of many in this community.

Finally, we will continue to follow Jesus Christ as Lord of all. While that sounds like a simple and obvious idea, following Christ historically has meant service and sacrifice. When Christ called his first disciples, he called them from the certainty of the fishing life to the uncertainty of life in the Kingdom of God. We are reminded that God’s Kingdom begins here on this earth because Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our responsibility is to do God’s will here, even as it is being done in heaven.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll have the opportunity to talk together about some of these issues. We need to work out our own theology in each of these areas. And, our community needs our leadership and our engagement.

If we learn to avoid the arrogant mistakes of people like King Saul, it will not be said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”

Rather, our prayer is that others will say, “Chatham Baptist Church has been a humble and loving beacon of hope in this community for generations.” May it ever be so. Amen.

Prayer Vigil Today, 11:45 AM, the Courthouse

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At 11:45 AM today, Pittsylvania County citizens will gather on the steps of the county courthouse for a prayer vigil to remember the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shootings, and pray for unity in our own community.

The prayer vigil has been organized by local churches and the Pittsylvania County chapter of the NAACP. Please take a few moments to join us as our community comes together to reflect and pray. Please share.‪#‎PittsylvaniaCountyUnited‬ ‪#‎WeAreOnePeople‬

Sermon After Charleston: How To Let The World Know There is a God

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Emanuel AME Church is the oldest AME church in the south and the second oldest in the world.

Emanuel AME Church is the oldest AME church in the south and the second oldest in the world.

Today, June 21, 2015, our church stood silently while the names of those killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this past week were read. As the names were read, the pipe organ chimed for each person whose life was cut short during a Bible study in a church where they should have been safe.

The sermon I preached this morning was about David and Goliath, taken from 1 Samuel 17. But, I lamented the fascination we have with violence, and called us to a new day of hope because as David said, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s…” 1 Samuel 17:47 NIV.

Here’s the podcast of that message about how, even in the midst of tragedy, the families of those killed showed the world there is a God.

Pray for Charleston, Stand with Emanuel

 I’m inviting white pastors and white church members to stand with Charleston and the members of Emanuel Church by joining the NAACP. We join our African American brothers and sisters humbly and as learners in the shared responsibility of justice and equality. #PrayForCharleston #standwithcharleston #blacklivesmatter #pastorsforpeace #itstime #showyourcard  

Standing with Our Brothers and Sisters in Charleston

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Charleston, SC. An historic black church gathered for Bible study. Into that sacred, safe, and historic space violence and hatred intruded last night. As a pastor, my heart goes out to this congregation who lost their pastor, and to the families of the wounded and slain.

Several weeks ago, I quietly joined the NAACP whose membership is open to anyone who values justice and equality. You can join the NAACP as an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Charleston, Ferguson, Detroit, New York, Chatham, and all across this land. Isn’t it time that white ministers and church members take a stand humbly in support of those who have been the target of racism and violence for over 400 years here in this country?

I invite you to join me in this silent, but meaningful action. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited white pastors and church members to join with him. Some did, most (especially in the South) did not. Go to naacp.org and join today.

Sermon: God Doesn’t Look at Things Like We Do

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God doesn’t look at things like we do. That’s a simple statement, but a profound theological thought. And, that is the point of the reading from the Old Testament for this Sunday, I Samuel 16:4-13. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on that theme, and I must admit, this sermon had a mind of its own and took me in a completely unexpected direction.

God Doesn’t Look at Things Like We Do

I Samuel 16:4-13 NIV

4 Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

5 Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

The Story of David’s Anointing As Israel’s King

I must confess: I love this story! And who wouldn’t? The text we read this morning continues the lesson from last week. The backstory is that the people of Israel began to demand that before Samuel died, he would find a king for them.

Samuel talked to God about their request. Despite God’s objection, God gave Samuel permission to get them a king, but with some dire warnings first. Samuel, as God instructed him to, warned the nation that God would take their sons, their daughters, their herds, their fields, and anything else a king could get his hands on for the king’s own purposes.

Despite that, the people said, “Yep, that’s what we want because we want to be like other nations who have kings.” That’s my paraphrase, but that sums it up.

Israel had come from the bondage of Egypt led by Moses; had been led into Canaan by Joshua; had been led both civilly and militarily by a series of judges, both men and women. Samuel becomes the last of these judges.

But Samuel isn’t just any old judge. Samuel himself has heard the voice of God as a small boy in the charge of the priest, Eli. Samuel has responded to God by saying what Eli tells him to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” At least, that’s how I learned the story when I was a small boy.

So, Samuel becomes for the nation both the last judge and the first real prophet they have ever had. But Samuel’s sons, like Eli’s before him, aren’t cut out of the same cloth as their father. The people of Israel know this.

Their concern not to be ruled by Samuel’s corrupt sons, and to be like other nations pushes Samuel to take the whole matter to God.

Now, don’t miss this part. God says to Samuel, “It’s not you they’re rejecting, it’s Me!” But then God goes on to grant reluctantly their request.

We could stop right here because here is the Bible saying that God is making an accommodation to Israel that God does not want to make. What does that say to us about God?  Does God change God’s mind? Does God grant requests that God knows are not going to turn out well? Interesting questions, but that’s not what we want to focus on this morning. But, at a minimum these questions ought to make us a little more humble about what we think we know about God.

But back to the issue at hand and the story. The problem Samuel has is that he has already anointed Saul as king of Israel. Unfortunately, Saul isn’t working out and by this passage we read today, God has rejected Saul as king. Unfortunately, again, Saul refuses to step down.

So, Samuel has to slip around and disguise his trip to Jesse’s village, Bethlehem, as an occasion for sacrificing to God. At this point, remember, Jerusalem is not the center of Israel’s civic or religious life. There is no Temple, and Shiloh, and other worship sites are prominent. David eventually will make Jerusalem the capitol of both government and worship, but that won’t happen for several more years.

But, back to the story. Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to join him for the sacrifice. At this point, Samuel sees Jesse’s son, Eliab, and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

God quickly corrects Samuel’s presumption, and Samuel looks at all seven of Jesse’s sons, none of whom God has chosen. Samuel asks Jesse, “Do you have anymore sons?”

“Only the youngest, but he’s out tending sheep,” Jesse replies.

Samuel says, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

Well, apparently they do sit down because when David arrives, God says to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

And, so Samuel does.

Why Do We Love This Story?

So, why do we love this story? I think first we love this story because of the characters in it: Samuel, the beloved prophet, priest, and judge; the wicked King Saul, who is being replaced; and, of course, David the shepherd boy who walks from the pasture into the presence of God and the Kingdom of Israel.

If there is ever a rags-to-riches story, this is it. And, the story of David is built on this idea of the underdog, David, who defeats Goliath, the giant Philistine. We all root for the underdog.

And, in this passage, the Bible tells us that David was a healthy, strong, good-looking kid. That only makes this story better. And the message I got as a kid was “be like David.”

But, if that’s why we like the story, we have missed the whole point of it.

The Key to the David Story

Even though David was a good-looking, healthy kid, that’s not why God chose him. Quite the contrary actually. The key verse to understanding this story is verse 7. When Eliab appears before Samuel, he’s a good-looking kid, too. And Samuel makes the assumption that his maturity and good looks, and being the oldest, mean that God has chosen Eliab. But, listen to what God says about Eliab:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Don’t take his appearance or his height into account, Samuel is told. Why? Because God doesn’t look at things like we do!

And that is the key to understanding this whole passage. God doesn’t look at things like we do.

Of course, the temptation for preachers right about now is to tell you how God sees things. But of course, if we knew how God saw things, then we would see things like God does, and this whole story and verse 7 wouldn’t make any sense.

But even though we don’t see things like God sees them, and more importantly, God doesn’t see things like we do, we can still take some hints from this story of David about what that means.

Some Hints About How God Sees Things

So, how can we tease out from this story, how God sees things? Here are some thoughts that stand out to me:

  • We look at outward appearance, God looks at the heart.

Obviously, that is not an original thought of mine, because God clearly tells Samuel exactly that. But, here’s the problem — when David appears the writer of this story describes David’s outward appearance!

“He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” — I Samuel 16:12 NIV

Now, of course, this verse makes it sound like that David is chosen because of his “fine appearance and handsome features.” I wish the writer of this story had said something like, “Even though David was short and stubby, and a little scruffy looking, God said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

That would have made more sense. But we have to let the writer be human, and humans do what? Answer: humans look on the outward appearance. So, the writer illustrates God’s point with his own description of David.

But, what does God see in David’s heart? Well, it can’t be that David will be completely obedient to God, can it? Because if you know the story of David, you will remember that after David has become king, when he was supposed to be out fighting with his men, he’s lounging around his palace in Jerusalem. Looking from his palace down on the modest houses around the palace, David spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the rooftop of her house.

You know the rest of this story. David sends for Bathsheba, commits adultery with her. But that’s not all. To cover up the evidence of his adultery, David has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. Of course, eventually Nathan the prophet confronts David, and David repents of his sin. David’s repentance is captured in Psalm 51, in one example.

So, it cannot be that David’s heart is pure, or even obedient. What does God see in David’s heart?

That brings us to the second way God’s view of things is different from ours.

  1. We look for power, God looks for possibility.

David, God knows, will become powerful. It is David’s power that becomes his downfall. No one else in his kingdom could have taken another man’s wife except David himself. But, as powerful as he was, David was also able to see his own sin and repent. Unlike his predecessor King Saul, David’s heart was open to change, to repentance, to conversion, to transformation.

God isn’t looking for self-sufficient power. Rather, God is looking for spiritual possibility. Which is the same kind of thing Jesus was saying when he said about 1,000 years after David:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You don’t have to be rich, strong, full or powerful. It’s the upside-down kingdom, this kingdom of God. Where possibility trumps power, where the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. It’s a contradiction to our culture and every culture. It’s what God is looking for.

If God Doesn’t See Things Like We Do, What Hope Do We Have?

Well, first of all, just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.

Listen to that again, very carefully: just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.

I think that is the point of Paul’s great hymn about Jesus, from Philippians 2:5-11 KJV:

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” I like the King James Version. In other words, “think like Jesus.” Other translations say, “Have the same attitude as Jesus..”

Regardless of translation, Paul’s point is that we can see things the way God sees them. And that mindset, that attitude, always leads to self-sacrificial love.

Secondly, if we can have the mind of Christ — his attitude, his perspective, his love — then it will change us and our conversations and conduct.

If we can look on the hearts of those around us, like God does, and see in each heart the possibility of this person loving God, because they are God’s creation and Jesus died and rose again for them, then that might change us.

It might change the things we say on Facebook, it might change the comments we make to co-workers, it might begin just ever so slightly to nibble away at our cultural prejudices, our knee-jerk reactions, our critical natures, and our divisive rhetoric.

God doesn’t look at things like we do, but we can look at things like God does. At least a little more than we used to. Each day.

And when we look at people’s hearts, just as God looked at David’s, we realize that sick hearts can be healed, broken hearts can be mended, rebellious hearts can be turned, hard hearts can be softened, and black hearts can be made white as snow.

That’s what God sees. Not our perfection, but our potential. May we see with the eyes of God those around us. Amen.

Ascension Sunday Sermon: Changed Hearts and Changed Lives

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I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow on Ascension Sunday. Unless we understand the Ascension of Christ, we cannot understand the Great Commission.

Changed Hearts, Changed Lives

Luke 24:44-53
44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.

This is Ascension Sunday. There is probably no Sunday among the significant Sundays of the Christian year that is more misunderstood than this Sunday. The reason for that misunderstanding is a failure to appreciate the significance of the Ascension for our lives and for the lives of those in the first century.

For many, the Ascension seems less real, less credible than the miracles of Jesus. We can understand the miracles of healing, feeding, and even raising the dead as indications of Jesus’ compassion. People were sick, so he healed them. People were hungry, so he fed them. People were grieving, so he raised their loved ones back to life.

Or we can understand the miracles of Jesus as indicators of what the kingdom of God is truly like. Jesus says that there is coming a day when there will be no more sickness, crying, or death. When everyone will have everything they need. And so the miracles are previews of the kingdom of God.

But when it comes to the Ascension, we don’t seem to be able to make sense out of it. The story of Jesus being taken up to heaven in a cloud seems a little like something out of Star Trek: “Beam me up, Scotty,” as Captain Kirk used to say.  It seems like a science fiction fantasy, ripped right from Ray Bradbury’s screenplay. Except of course that the Ascension predates Star Trek by 20 centuries.

So, what do we make of this strange event where Jesus floats up to heaven on a cloud, or surrounded by clouds, in plain sight of his disciples numbering maybe as many as 500 people? Baptists, in our typical pragmatic fashion, latched on to the final words of Jesus, which are similar in this passage and in Matthew:

Matthew 28:18-20New International Version (NIV)

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Of course, since we could not explain the Ascension, we focused on the Great Commission, as the Matthew passage is called. But, usually we leave out verse 18, and usually on quote Matthew 28:19-20, the part about us going and making disciples, etc, etc.

But verse 18 is so intimately connected both to the Great Commission and to the Ascension, we cannot understand either without it. Jesus claim to have “all authority in heaven and on earth” is an amazing claim. But that is what both the Ascension and the Great Commission are about.

Let me explain. And for an explanation we have to turn back to the Hebrew Bible, Daniel 7:13-14:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

In this brief text, we have the account of a dream that Daniel himself had. In the dream, Daniel dreams of four kingdoms. Most scholars believe that these four kingdoms represent Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Here’s what happens after Daniel sees these four kingdoms:

9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,

   and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

His clothing was as white as snow;

   the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire,

   and its wheels were all ablaze.

10 A river of fire was flowing,

   coming out from before him.

Thousands upon thousands attended him;

   ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.

The court was seated,

   and the books were opened.

11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)

So the Ancient of Days is clearly God. And once God has dispatched the rebellious kingdoms of this world, then “one like a son of man” (a human being, in other words) comes on the clouds of heaven TOWARD the Ancient of Days. He is led into God’s presence and there he receives AUTHORITY, GLORY, AND SOVEREIGN POWER! And, people from all peoples, nations and languages (which is another way of saying “the ends of the earth”) worship him.

Okay, so get ready for this. Imagine that you’re making a movie and you are filming the final scene in the life of Jesus. You need two cameras for this scene. One camera is shooting the  disciples’ eyeview from the earth. That camera records Jesus ascending from earth into heaven. And he ascends on the clouds of heaven up and up until the camera cannot see him any longer.

Then, imagine that the scene shifts. Camera number two is positioned in the throne room of heaven. You’re no longer standing on earth looking up, but you are standing in the throne room of heaven looking “down” toward the earth. (Down, of course, is a nod to our notion that heaven in up and earth is down, but you would not really be looking down.)

As you look through the viewfinder of the camera, you see in the distance a very small figure, seemingly surrounded by clouds, approaching the throne room of God. As the figure grows larger and closer, you see it is Jesus — one like a son of man, a real human being. You continue to film.

Then, Jesus is in the presence of God. And God, the Ancient of Days, confers upon Jesus authority, glory, and the power of God (sovereign means ruling, kingly, none other like it).

So, two perspectives are captured by the two cameras. First, there is the disciples’ perspective as they watch Jesus ascend into heaven. Second, there is the perspective of the hosts of heaven as Jesus enters the presence of God and receives all authority, glory, and sovereign power that is rightfully his. God gives this authority, glory and power to Jesus because of his willingness to be born as a human being, live, die, and rise again. All because God so loved the world.

That’s what the Ascension means. And if you need further proof, Paul picks up this same theme in Philippians 2:5-11:

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

7 rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Okay, so what does that have to do with changed hearts and lives? Just this: The One, and the only one, who is worthy is Jesus.

John records this scene in heaven when he is searching for someone worthy to open the seals of the 7 scrolls. John says:

4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll

and to open its seals,

because you were slain,

and with your blood you purchased for God

persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,

to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength

and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

be praise and honor and glory and power,

for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

-Rev 5:4-14 NIV

Back to our passage from Luke 24:

46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things.

“A change of heart and life” is usually translated “repentance.” But repentance is a word we hardly ever use now. And, repentance too often is shorthand for “accepting Jesus.” Which is fine if in accepting Jesus there is a change of heart and life.

The followers of Jesus in the New Testament had their hearts and lives changed because they realized who Jesus was, is, and will always be — the One to whom God has given all authority. The King of kings. The Lord of lords. The only One worthy of praise, glory and honor.

That’s why their hearts and lives were changed. Because they realized that the Ascension of Jesus was really his return to his rightful place at the right hand of God. That Jesus had done all the Father had asked him to, and had done it willingly. And that Jesus was now the One on whom God had bestowed a name above every name.

The Ascension was the final vindication and recognition of the faithfulness of Christ to the love of God for all the world. It was the moment in which Christ returned to God the Father, victor and victorious.

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