Tag: religion

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Easter Sermon: Thinking About The Resurrection

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow at my church. In it I reflect on the illness that has put me in the hospital for the last three weeks. But I also reflect on the resurrection, and how the resurrection itself makes possible Kingdom actions today.

Thinking About The Resurrection

John 20:1-18 NIV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18 NIV)

An Unexpected Lenten Journey

To say that the past five weeks have been unexpected is an understatement. On February 21, I went to my primary care physician with what I thought then were a couple of minor complaints for someone who is my age. Along with those issues, I also remarked that my legs were aching and burning, like when you have the flu, except the discomfort was just in my legs not my whole body. Both the doctor and I thought this was a minor issue which might be corrected with a little physical therapy if the symptoms did not disappear.

Well, they didn’t. As a matter of fact they grew worse. On Monday, February 25, I made the first of what were to be three trips to a hospital emergency room. Because I showed no signs of heart problems or stroke, the emergency room physicians all sent me home to follow-up with my primary care doctor, and they suggested that I see a neurologist.

By March 7, which was my first appointment with a neurologist, I was experiencing increasing pain and difficulty walking, so much so that I had begun using a cane. To add insult to injury, during the two weeks from February 25 until I was hospitalized on March 9, I was not sleeping. At first I was able to sleep 3 or 4 hours per night, but this gradually decreased to my complete inability to sleep at all on the Friday night before I was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday night, March 9.

During the week I was at Moses Cone Hospital, doctors ordered several MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and a spinal tap. In the meantime, my symptoms grew worse, and I was losing the ability to walk. All of that was a very uncertain time, as you might imagine it would be.

By Friday, March 15, with the encouragement of friends and the help of my neurologist, I was transferred to Duke University Hospital. At Duke, doctors performed additional tests including a muscle and nerve study, and a PET scan. The muscle and nerve test indicated that the sheath around my nerves — called myelin — was being attacked, probably by my own body. The PET scan revealed several lymph nodes that “lit up” more than they should have, according to the doctors.

I began a regimen of plasma pheresis treatments. In those treatments they draw all your blood out of one arm, remove the plasma which contains the antibodies that might be attacking my nerves, and then return the freshly laundered blood to my body through the other arm.

Thinking About The Resurrection

During all of this time, neither Debbie nor I were afraid or distressed. Both of us seemed to be at peace with whatever was happening, and both of us had faith in God to do the right thing. Your prayers sustained us and your love gave us strength.

But I never thought “Why me?” because I was in a hospital full of people sicker than I was. I do not believe in a capricious God who metes out suffering randomly just to see how people react.

I also did not ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” because, while I did learn some things in the hospital, I do not believe in a God who teaches us by inflicting pain and suffering on us. As a father, I tried to teach my children a lot of things, but I never hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I don’t believe God does that either.

I do believe that all things work together for good to those who love God and live according to his purpose, but that’s a far cry from believing that God is the author of suffering and pain.

Actually, here’s what happened. One day in the first week of my stay at Duke, Debbie had gone home to get a good night’s sleep, and to get some things we needed. Alone in my room, after the doctors had told me that the PET scan showed some possible cancer sites, I was just sitting and thinking about my illness.

Without focusing on anything particularly spiritual, the word “resurrection” popped into my head. I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized “That’s it!” This journey I’m on is about the resurrection.

Let me explain.

Jesus Announces and Demonstrates The Kingdom of God

Often when we gather on Easter Sunday, we think about the resurrection as making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. That certainly is true. But what about the resurrection in everyday life? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have anything to say to us in times of illness, sadness, joy, or celebration? I think it does, so follow me as I explain why.

First, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The time has come,” he said.  “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)

Now the kingdom of God isn’t heaven. The kingdom of God contains the promise of heaven, but it contains so much more. The kingdom of God is generally thought to be the unhindered rule and reign of God, when things are as they should be. That’s why the reading in the Old Testament for today says this in Isaiah 65:17-25 (NIV) —

17 “See, I will create

   new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

   nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever

   in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight

   and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem

   and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

   will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it

   an infant who lives but a few days,

   or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

   will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred

   will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;

   they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,

   or plant and others eat.

For as the days of a tree,

   so will be the days of my people;

my chosen ones will long enjoy

   the work of their hands.

23 They will not labor in vain,

   nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;

for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,

   they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;

   while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,

   and the lion will eat straw like the ox,

   and dust will be the serpent’s food.

They will neither harm nor destroy

   on all my holy mountain,”

says the Lord.

This was the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. His message was directed to the Jews who would return to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But it wasn’t just to them, because while God might make Jerusalem a delight and the people a joy again, the new heavens and new earth, the wolf and the lamb eating together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the absence of harm or destruction of any kind would have to wait for another day.

Jesus came announcing that God’s plan to put everything right was being implemented with his presence. Remember that John says “They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9 NIV)

It is the resurrection, with its defeat of death, that becomes the foundational event making possible the new heavens and the new earth, the wolf and lamb eating together, and the lion eating straw like the ox. Let me explain.

Jesus not only announces the kingdom of heaven, he demonstrates what life will be like in that kingdom. So, how does he do that?

Jesus demonstrates what life will be like when God puts all things right by performing miracles. The point of the miracles is to demonstrate that in the kingdom of God everything is as it should be. That means that no one is hungry, so Jesus feeds people. He feeds 5,000 at one time, 4,000 at another. But a miracle that we overlook sometimes is the miracle of his sharing table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others of ill-repute in that day. Why does he do that? Because in the kingdom of God all are welcome to God’s banquet.

Jesus also demonstrates that in the kingdom of God there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)

So, Jesus heals people. Let’s talk about healing people. In various places the New Testament tells us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. And because of his healing power, vast crowds flocked to Jesus.

The sick came to Jesus because in the first century if you were lame or blind or had a skin disease, you were an outcast. You were reduced to begging for food, or anything to keep you alive. Your family abandoned you, your friends avoided you, and there was no hope because the practice of medicine, if it existed, often did more harm than good to the sufferer.

But in the kingdom of God, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and lepers are made clean. There are no diseases in heaven, because the Great Physician heals that which has gone wrong.

The Resurrection Makes Kingdom Life Possible

Okay, let me tie all this together for you. So, if Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, and then demonstrated what it would be like by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead, then how does that affect our daily lives now?

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all of that possible and more. The resurrection is the pivotal event in which God exalts Jesus, and makes possible kingdom events then and now.

In the resurrection, God demonstrates his power over sin, death, and the grave. God forgives sin because Jesus has given his life to put God’s people right. God has power over death and demonstrates it by raising Jesus. God’s power over the grave means that not only are the dead promised eternal life, but those who mourn shall be comforted.

The resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is the “first fruit” of God’s kingdom. The indwelling Spirit of God is the down payment, assuring us that God is going to make good on his promise.

So, as I was thinking about the resurrection and my illness, I realized that the hospital I was in, the doctors and nurses who cared for me, the healing that was done, was all a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. Healing is kingdom work, and any who do it are participating in the work of God in this world.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) Jesus details what those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God will be doing;

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

In other words, those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, befriend the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, and visit those in prison are doing the work of the kingdom of God. It is to those Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. We do not create the kingdom of God by what we do, nor do we ourselves bring in that kingdom. That is God’s doing. But we can pray that God’s “will would be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we can actually do the work of the kingdom of God because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made that possible.

Paul sums up the significance of the resurrection this way:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)

On this Easter Sunday, I want you to know that the resurrection of Christ has opened the door for the kingdom of God to be demonstrated, and one day fully realized. But until then, those who do what Jesus did — who feed the hungry, who care for the homeless, who heal the sick, who reach out to the stranger, who minister to those in prison, who seek justice for the most vulnerable in our society and care for them — those people are demonstrating the values and the vitality of the kingdom of God here today, whether they know it or not.

The resurrection does matter. It matters to us when we approach the door of death, and it matters to us each day of our lives. Where there is healing, God’s kingdom is present. Where there is care for the hungry, the needy, the outcast, God’s kingdom is present. The resurrection matters because it is our guarantee of God’s power, presence, and providential care — now and all the days of our lives.

So, I’m not afraid of this illness I have. I’m not angry because I can’t walk like I used to. I’m not fretting that parts of my body are numb. I’m not questioning why this happened. And I’m not anxious about the future, because I know that the God who can raise the dead is a God who can do all things. Amen.

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The myth that conservative churches are growing today because people are looking for theological fundamentalism is roundly debunked by Mark Chaves in his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends.  Despite the book’s mundane title, Mark Chaves sheds dramatic new light on the shape of the American religious scene today.  Chaves’s conclusions may surprise you and contradict what you have long heard.

In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, Dean Kelley shocked the religious world by concluding that conservative churches demanded more of their members theologically and behaviorally; therefore, they attracted more people than liberal mainline congregations who focused on social and political issues.    The book’s credibility was further enhanced by the fact that Dean Kelley was a liberal Protestant, an executive with the National Council of Churches, and a member of the board of the ACLU.  The common wisdom was that if a liberal was identifying reasons for conservative church growth and liberal church decline, then it must be true.

Kelley’s book continues to be cited by conservative church leaders such as Al Mohler as proof of the inherent validity of the conservative agenda.  In an April, 2011 article, Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, quotes Kelley:  “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley noted, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

For almost 40 years Kelley’s conclusions held sway as the conventional wisdom of American religious institutions.  Conservative churches grow, liberal ones do not, and it’s all because of conservative theology and politics.  Or maybe not.

While it is true that conservative churches are still growing, Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University, has mined new data that paint a dramatically different picture.  Chaves says,

“Contrary to what many believe, this decline (of liberal Protestantism) has not occurred because people have been leaving more liberal denominations in droves to join more conservative religious groups.  Nor does the decline of liberal denominations mean that liberal religious ideas are waning.”  (American Religion, chapter 7, Kindle location 923.)

Chaves offers four reasons that conservative churches are growing, and they are not an echo of 40-years’ of conventional thinking.   Chaves concludes:

1.   Conservative churches are growing and liberal ones declining because of a differential in the fertility rates of each group.   This demographic fact accounts for 80% of the “shifting fortunes of liberal and conservative Protestant churches” according to Chaves.  Apparently women in conservative denominations have borne an average of one more child than women in more liberal or moderate denominations.  Over several generations this difference becomes apparent and dramatic.  But Chaves points out that the gap in fertility rates is narrowing between conservative and liberal denominations.  In the future this could be a factor in the slowing or decline of conservative groups as well.

2.   The flow of people from liberal to conservative churches is not a factor, but the decline of movement from conservative to liberal churches is.  This argument requires some explanation.  Chaves contends that the “pews of liberal churches are emptier now partly because a steady influx of upwardly mobile former evangelicals has been stemmed.”   Chaves notes that 28% of conservative Protestants born prior to 1931 “switched to a more liberal denomination as an adult.”  In other words, the more successful the pre-WWII generation was, the more they gravitated to more prestigious churches and denominations.  However, that trend dropped dramatically among those born after 1950, when only 12% of conservatives gravitated to more prestigious denominations.  Chaves’s conclusion is that conservative groups like Baptists have become more respectable in American church life.  Because of this new-found respectability, it is no longer necessary for upwardly-mobile adults to find a church that more closely fits their secular success.

3.   Conservative Protestants lose 12% of their youth as adults, but liberal churches lose 15%.  Clearly, over several generations the stickiness of conservative groups with emerging adults contributes to the stabilization of those groups.  Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, lose 20% more of those who grew up in liberal churches than do conservatives.  Obviously, this differential adds up over time.

4.   Culture has influenced the growth of conservative churches and the decline of mainlines.   Chaves contends that conservative churches benefited from a backlash in the 1960s and 70s against “liberalizing changes in personal sexual morality” and other social factors.  Conservative churches of that era attracted those who liked a more traditional approach to sexual mores including premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, and other social issues.

While that sounds like a contradiction to Chaves’s conclusions, it really confirms them.  If Kelley’s book identified conservative churches themselves (their membership demands, strict theology, etc) as the reason for their growth, the reverse was actually true.  As the culture became more conservative, people sought out more conservative churches.  In other words, conservative churches benefited from a turn to the right in the wider culture.  However, the opposite trends are now in play.  Even among conservatives the trends are for greater tolerance of other denominations and religions; greater tolerance for lifestyle diversity; and, less adherence to doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible.  It remains to be seen how this “liberalizing effect” plays out in church attendance and membership.

In the introduction to his book, Chaves points out that “The range of beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and practices that remain unchanged (in American religious life) is impressive.”  But he says, “even in the midst of substantial continuity in American religion there are signs of change in the direction of less religion.”

All churches and denominations including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship face the same challenge: participation in religious life is declining in America, even if that decline is occurring slowly.  Mark Chaves’ book can be a helpful resource to those who are interested in understanding the reasons for religious decline in America.  The first step in that direction is to acknowledge that we may have been wrong about the reasons for conservative growth and liberal decline for 40 years.

Where Was God in the Earthquake?

Where was God in the earthquake?  Craig David Uffman says it eloquently on his blog, Metanoia.  Here’s an excerpt, but read the entire post here:

There are those who speak at such times of the omnipotence of God. Some will see this and all such natural disasters as evidence against the God in whom we trust.  They will portray the earthquake as ‘Exhibit A’ in their case against our claims of a good and loving God.

Others will feel it necessary to defend the righteousness of God. Well-meaning Christians will rise to declare this disaster to be God’s majestic will, a will wholly impenetrable to us,  and they will cite our story of Job to warn us against efforts to comprehend it.  And, sadly, other Christians also will rise to declare this disaster to be God’s will, but, forgetting Job and distorting our story tragically, they will tell us precisely which group among us brought about the earthquake as punishment for their unforgivable sins.

Each of these do us a service, for they force us to give an account of our faith in God and to remember carefully the truths about God we actually claim.  For the same question that moves these groups haunts us, too, as we see the tears of anguished, hungry, and orphaned girls and boys reaching their hands out to us: where was God in the earthquake?

Theologian David Bentley Hart offers the best answer I know in his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? He wrote it upon reflecting on the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004.  Hart reminds us that “we are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ.  For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers.  And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

What Your Church Can Learn From Google’s New Phone Launch

Okay, I’m going for the cheap search hits with the title, but bear with me because I do have a serious point. Google launched the Nexus One phone today, to no surprise and with little flash. One reviewer said the presentation was “underwhelming.” Of course, that’s exactly what Google intended. Here’s why and here’s what your church can learn:

1.  Google is not interested in a big splash. Back in the fall of 2007, Google announced the Android operating system, an open source system with an Open Handset Alliance to go with it.  Reviews were mixed, prognostications abounded, Google was questioned, etc, etc.  Same with any product launch.  But Google knew where they were headed.

2.  Google has a strategy. The strategy was, “let some other folks play around with this.”  Which is classic postmodern, collaborative thinking.  Let’s see what someone comes up with.  To much fanfare, and not a little disappointment, the first Google phone, the G1, was offered by T-Mobile.  It was widely trashed, but still it was the first.  “It’s no iPhone” was the big complaint.  But Google’s strategy isn’t to be Apple — hardware/software locked up together.  Google’s strategy is to control the entire computing “cloud” experience.  Mobile is the next piece of that.  Here’s a site that agrees with me.

3.  Google is good at iteration. They keep making it better, in other words.  Incrementally, one step at a time, no splash, just good solid improvements one-at-a-time.  No Steve Jobs, no big gathering of fanboys, just “here’s what we did to push Android to the limits.”  So, now the G1 looks really ancient, and even the Droid is looking a little outdated.  One step at a time.

4.  Google is good at disrupting models. But the big thing about the Nexus One is that Google will sell it to you directly, without the mobile phone provider involved.  Of course, you have to have some type of plan, and right now it’s just T-Mobile, but for the first time you can buy a legally unlocked phone in the US.  I bought an unlocked phone in Hong Kong in 1999.  I used three different GSM cards in it as I traveled from Hong Kong, to China, and then to the US.  Google has just poked every mobile phone carrier in the eye with a sharp stick.  But, they are apparently lining up to Google’s door anyway.

5.  Google is in this for the long haul. Google isn’t after the one big splash, or the big event.  They’re building their company on what they believe.  Remember when Google search first started?  No photos, no fancy text, no graphics.  I thought it was completely lame.  But it was fast, and it got faster, and they indexed the web better, and their algorithms delivered better results, all so that they could place ads in front of people.  Oh, they’re still in the advertising business, they said today.  Only now, they’re going to push ads out in a variety of ways to mobile phones, ebook readers, netbooks, and all the other devices that will run Android.  And we thought all the Google stuff was free.

So, the lesson for churches is obvious.  Be more like Google.  Take the long view, go for the next step, disrupt the culture a bit, but keep on plugging.  My money is (figuratively speaking, of course) on Google’s approach.  And, I like the “do no evil” thing, too.

The Church of the Future: Urban, Minority and Progressive

millenial_generation_onpageThe church of the future resides in an urban setting, consists of multiple minorities, and espouses progressive social values, according to two recently-released reports.

While most church futurists have focused on church models (i.e., house churches vs. megachurches) in their predictions of the shape of church in the next 50-years, the demographic forces shaping future churches are at work now on a global scale. The report of the Population Reference Bureau, which published its comprehensive “World Population Data Sheet” findings in October, 2009; and the Center for American Progress’s “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation” report contain valuable insights for church thinkers.

Here are some of the findings of the World Population Data Sheet:

1. The world’s population will reach 7-billion by 2011 or 2012. By 2050 10-billion people will occupy an increasingly crowded planet. We are adding approximately 1-billion people every 12-years.

2. By 2050, 90% of Americans will live in urban areas.

3. Most of the population growth in the US will come from immigrants already in the US, or those who will migrate to the US. The US population in 2050 will stand at 439-million, up 135-million from the 304-million today — an increase of almost 50%.

4. By 2050, India will lead the world population with almost 2-billion; China will have 1.4-billion people; and, the US will be the third most populous country in the world with 439-million.

5. No majority ethnicities will exist by 2050 in the United States.

6. In the 20th century, 90% of population growth came from less-developed countries. In the 21st century, virtually all global population growth will come from less-developed countries, with some more-developed country populations actually declining, or being bolstered by increased immigration.

Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, The Next Evangelicalism, points out that while church proponents decry the decline of the American church, it’s the white American church that is decline, while ethnic congregations are flourishing. Subtitled “Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity” Rah advocates a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church whose seeds are already beginning to bear fruit. In other words, the shift that will be realized 40-years from today has already begun in our society. But, because the dominant culture in American society is the white European culture, church scholars are culturally blind to the rise of minority, urban, and ethnic churches.

The report by the Center for American Progress gives additional credibility to the changing nature of the church. The Millennials, born 1978-2004, are an increasing force in American life and politics. The Millennial cohort will dwarf the size of the Baby Boomer generation, while actually bringing about changes in society that the Boomers abandoned after they matured. Sixty-four percent of Millennials agreed that “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights.” Just 19 percent disagreed.

The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s are quickly fading, and a new generation that is more progressive in social views is assuming center stage. Millennials were a major force in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and by 2020 will comprise 40% of the entire American electorate.

Of course, world events such as the economy, war, natural disasters, and a host of other events could intervene and reshape the future that is evident now.  However, the trend toward multi-culturalism, urbanism, and changing social ideas upon us.  It remains to be seen exactly how these trends will influence and shape the church of the future.

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:  I Believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15″But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.  21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”  23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” — Matthew 16:13-28

The Largest Section of the Apostles’ Creed

We’re continuing our look at the Apostles’ Creed, using this ancient confession of faith as our outline for the great teachings, or doctrines, of the Christian faith. Last week we looked at the opening statement of The Creed — “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” That brief line put us in good company.

First, for those who confess faith in God, we identify ourselves as theists, those who believe in a god; as opposed to atheists, those who do not believe in a god. But, that line also affirms that we believe not just in a god, but in the God who is Almighty, unequalled, unparalleled by any other so-called gods. We believe in God, who is Almighty, and who is the one Creator of all that exists.

But at this point we have merely joined the ranks of other theists who acknowledge a personal, powerful God. And so Christianity joins Islam, and Judaism as representatives of the world’s great monotheistic religions.

But with our declaration that we also believe “…in Jesus Christ, His only son our Lord…” we have now parted company with both Judaism and Islam. We as Christians now stand alone, unique in all the world’s religions. We believe that God has a son whose name is Jesus.

This line of the Apostles’ Creed is attributed to Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. As we have noted before, this legend is more fable than fact, but perhaps Andrew gets the credit for this line because he was among the first to recognize who Jesus was, and then Andrew brought his own brother, Peter, to meet the Lord.

Most likely the Apostles’ Creed has three major sections — I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe in the Holy Spirit — because the creed was usually said at the baptism of a new convert. Matthew records the instruction of Jesus that we are to “make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The creed was probably part of the baptismal ceremony, recited one line at a time by the baptismal candidate when asked the three questions —

— Do you believe in God? I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

— Do you believe in Jesus Christ? I believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord.

— Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? I believe in the Holy Spirit.

With that the candidate was baptized into the faith, and his or her confession of faith was called the “faith delivered” or “the symbol” of the faith.

Peter’s Confession of Faith

All of that brings us to our text today, found in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew presents the scene of Jesus and the disciples traveling through the countryside. They reach Caesarea Philippi, the home of the shrine to the pagan god, Pan.

In this pagan setting, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” By “people” we presume that Jesus means his fellows Jews because he has just had a confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees who asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. It is obvious that religious leaders do not think Jesus is any one special because they ask him to prove his divine connection with some type of indication from God.

After warning the disciples about the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” Jesus asks them, not for their own opinion of him, but the opinion of others. The answers seem to come effortlessly because these 12 men have undoubtedly heard people talking about their Teacher, their rabbi.

The disciples respond — “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” We can gather a couple of things about these answers. The good news is that most people seem to think that Jesus is special. They liken him to John the Baptist, now dead. Perhaps he is John come back from the dead. Others say Jesus is Elijah. This is even more special because Elijah is the expected guest at every passover meal. An empty place at the table is reserved for Elijah, just as the widow made a place in her home for the prophet. Elijah, they thought, would come before the Messiah of God, so his coming was an important sign for the Jews. If Jesus was Elijah, then God had not forgotten his people in the midst of Roman occupation and persecution.

Others said that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Probably they thought this because Jeremiah railed against the corrupt religious figures of his day, just as Jesus had pronounced condemnation on the Pharisees and Sadducees in his day.

What Do People Say About Jesus Today?

All of these answers remind us of what many people say about Jesus today. Many will say that Jesus was a great teacher. Or that Jesus was a great ethicist who gave us new ways of relating to one another with his admonition to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, repay evil with good, and forgive one another. Even some Christian scholars have described Jesus as a mystic, a seer, and a spiritual pioneer.

None of the apostles ever described Jesus in those terms. While Jesus certainly was a great teacher, a moral ethicist who broke new ground in human relations, and one who had a mysterious relationship with God, none of the apostles ever described Jesus in those terms. The Jesus Seminar is the latest attempt by serious theologians to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus they believe has become hidden by time and myth. The Jesus Seminar, and the other attempts to find the historical Jesus, do not come to Jesus in the manner of the apostles, however.

Our attempts to “explain” Jesus to the rational western mind betray our own limitations, rather than discover who Jesus really is and was.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Jesus follows up his first question — Who do people say I am? — with a logical next question: “But who do you say that I am?” This question puts us on the spot, and that was Jesus’ intent. It is not enough to repeat what others have said about Jesus, we must come to our own belief about who this carpenter from Nazareth is.

Simon Peter speaks first, which is neither unusual nor a surprise. Saying more than he knows in his head, Peter’s mouth responds —

“You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Jesus quickly tells Peter he is blessed because he has not made that confession because of others, or because of his own intellect, but because God has revealed it to him.

But what did Peter actually say? First, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. In our reading of this text and others where the name Jesus Christ appears, we might mistakenly get the impression that Christ is Jesus second name, like Chuck Warnock, or John Smith.

But Christ is the Greek word that means Messiah, or the Anointed One. The big deal about that is the Messiah, or God’s Anointed, is the one the Jews were looking for. They were  looking for the Messiah to come and save them. And, their idea of being saved is less spiritual and more political.

The Roman army occupies the land of the Jews in the first century. Antonio’s Fortress, the Roman garrison, shares a common wall with the most sacred site in Jerusalem for Jews, the Temple. The Jews consider themselves exiles in their own land, captives to an empire which allows them to practice their religion as long as it does not interfere with the goals or peace of the empire.

Their civil and religious leaders are puppets of the Roman regime, and the Roman eagle parades with impunity in the streets of the city of David. This is an outrage for the Jews, and they look to God to deliver them. The Jews believe their current bondage is no different from the 400 years they spent in slavery in Egypt; and no different than the 70 years of the Babylonian captivity.

Already many self-proclaimed messiahs have come and gone. Most gathered small bands of insurrectionists, and all were defeated before their plots could hatch.

Now Peter has identified Jesus as God’s Messiah. The Anointed of God, the One who will save God’s people from their sins, not to mention the Roman empire.

I Believe in Jesus Christ

So, when we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ” we are pronouncing our faith in both the historical figure, the carpenter from Nazareth, and in the fact that Jesus is God’s Anointed. Paul would say later that God has made him “both Lord and Christ.”

To believe in Jesus the man, the carpenter from Nazareth, means that we believe in a real person, who lived a real life, in a real first century world. But we’re making that confession 2,000 years later. The amazing thing is that the followers of Jesus, the apostles, believed in this Jesus during and after his death and resurrection. They were eye witnesses to the historical events of his teaching, his miracles, his compassion, his praying, his companionship, and his friendship. They lived with this man, ate with him, walked dusty roads together with him for three years. For them, he was real.

John as he begins his first letter says,

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We write this to make our[a] joy complete.

So, this Jesus was not a figment of their imaginations, nor a figure so lost in the recesses of time that he no longer bore any resemblance to a man. He was real, they had seen him, and now they were telling the story. But they also recognized him as the Messiah. Certainly in the day of his confession, Peter said more than he knew. But on the day of Pentecost, Peter stands and boldly declares —

22″Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[a] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. — Acts 2:22-24 NIV

The book of Acts tells us that they were “cut to the heart” and 3,000 of those who heard Peter acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah, too.

His Only Son

But, the creed, and the story, don’t stop there. John will proclaim that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whosoever believes in him might be saved. Jesus is not just “a” son of God, he is the only son of God. Now we don’t even have time to begin today to unpack all the meaning in that phrase. Peter said Jesus was not only the Messiah, but “the son of the living God.”

Now there is a sense in which all of us are sons and daughters of God. At creation, God breathed into mankind the breath of life, made us in God’s own image, and stood us up in fellowship with Him.

But Jesus is different. Jesus is God’s only son. God has lots of children, but only one son, and his name is Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there.

The Bible says that this only son of God is also God himself. Paul in that great hymn to Jesus in Philippians 2 wrote:

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness.

The phrase the NIV translates “being in very nature God” is more directly translated, “Who being in the very form of God,” In other words, this Jesus, whose name means “God is our salvation” is God Himself.

He is God’s only Son, co-equal with God the Father and God the Spirit. Now, if that hurts your head, don’t worry. You join a long line of folks who have been puzzled by the Trinity — the Three-in-One. We’re going to talk more about that later in this series, so hold those thoughts for another Sunday.

The point is — Jesus Christ is God’s unique revelation of himself to all humanity.

Jesus is unique in his beginning — he doesn’t have one.

Jesus is unique in his end — he doesn’t have one of those either.

Jesus is unique in his sovereignty — he is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Jesus is unique in his sacrifice — he died so that you and I might live.

Jesus is unique in his resurrection from the dead — God raised him first, so that we might follow.

Jesus is unique in his place in history — we mark time from before and after his birth. And even scholastic attempts to take Jesus out of history by substituting BCE and CE for BC and AD, even those markers revolve around his place in history.

We could go on to talk about the uniqueness of his love, and of his coming again, but we’ll deal with those later in this series. But now we move on the the part of the confession that makes all the rest of it real — “our Lord.”

I Believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

The confession of Peter that day was that Jesus was God’s Messiah, that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. But read the rest of this passage, for it betrays Peter’s heart. Listen to the words from Matthew’s gospel:

21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”  23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Peter was quite willing to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, for that meant God was going to save his people. And, Peter was quite willing to recognize that Jesus was the unique, one and only Son of God. After all, Peter has seen Jesus heal people, feed people, and even raise some from the dead.

But, Peter struggled with acknowledging Jesus as Lord. Peter could not bear the thoughts of Jesus’ suffering and death. And he had little understanding at all of what Jesus meant when he said he would be raised to life on the third day. Peter was determined that none of those things would happen to his friend, his teacher, and so he objected to Jesus. “Never, Lord,” Peter said.

And right there is the problem. Those two words — never and Lord — cannot go in the same sentence. The only response we can make to Jesus is “Yes, Lord.”

So, Jesus went on to explain that anyone who followed him must take up his cross, give up his life, and deny himself and follow Jesus. That’s what Lord means.  A life devoted to serving the Master in whatever ways we can serve him.  Sometimes we make the Lordship of Christ about us — our obedience, our choices, our lives.  But Jesus is Lord, our only choice is to make him our Lord.

When my brother died on Monday, July 27, I was at home sitting in our den. Our granddaughters had just gone to bed, and the phone rang. The person on the other end identified herself as an investigator with the Fulton County Coroner’s Office. She told me that my brother had been found deceased that evening. I asked as many questions as I could think of, then hung up and called my father. I told him that Dana had died, and shared the few details I knew.

It was a call I knew would come some time, we just didn’t know when. As we made preparations for his funeral, we wondered what had taken his life. The autopsy results were “inconclusive” they said, and toxicology and histology tests had been ordered. My first thoughts were that he died of an overdose of something because he had come close to death several other times from overdoses.

I talked with Dana’s roommate by phone, and he promised to be at Dana’s funeral on Sunday afternoon, August 3. My father’s Sunday School class had prepared lunch for the family, just like we do here. Relatives from both my mother’s family and my father’s gathered in the fellowship hall for lunch. Dana’s roommate, Kip had made the drive from Atlanta, arriving just in time for lunch.

During the hour we had for lunch, Kip told us about Dana’s life in those last days. He and Dana enjoyed each other’s company, but Dana continued to go out on the streets of Atlanta at night. We all knew he was looking for some type of drugs, and Kip said he would ask Dana, “What are you looking for our there, Dana?”

But then Kip shared another story that confirmed our hope in Dana’s faith. Kip said that he had grown up in the church, had sung in the youth choir, and later the adult choir. But he said, he had never made a profession of faith in Christ in all those years. Kip talked about how he and Dana discussed history and the Bible on many occasions. Dana graduated from Mercer University with a BA in history, and from Southwestern Seminary, with a Masters in Religious Education.

But Kip also said that Dana talked to him about his faith, about his love for God. Kip said that it was after those long discussions with Dana, that he himself became a follower of Jesus, professing his faith in Christ for the first time.

Kip’s story was a great comfort to us because it confirmed for us that in the midst of his own struggles and despair, Dana still believed in God, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord. His inability to conquer his own personal demons did not prevent his faith in God.

At the funeral, Dana’s daughters had several verses of scripture printed and handed out. They were translations from a child’s edition of the Bible, which belongs to my great niece, Dana’s granddaughter. The first verse said — “You don’t have to be good at being good for God to love you.”

That is the God we believe in, the God who loves us, the God who in Jesus saves us, the God who reaches out to us when we are not capable of reaching back. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Amen.