Tag: theology

Podcast: The One Thing We Can Know

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Last week for the third Sunday of Lent, I preached on the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel the 9th chapter. It’s an interesting story of bad theology, judgmental assumptions and an inexplicable miracle. And, it has an important lesson for us today. Here’s the podcast from that message:

5 Reasons Theology Matters

I’ve seen more references to theology lately than I have in a long time. These theological comments often begin with phrases like  —

  • “Jesus would never….” or
  • “God always….” or
  • “Christians must….”

Of course, many using those phrases have no idea they’re doing theology, but they are. Sometimes they’re doing it well. Lots of times they’re doing theology poorly.

Merriam-Webster’s definition for “theology” is

“the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially :  the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.”

That about covers all the bases, doesn’t it — faith, practice, experience, the Person of God, and how God relates to this world. Theology matters in times like these. Take a look at these 5 reasons why it does:

  1. Our concept of God reveals our theology. Do you believe God is love? And if God is love, how does God express that love? Or, if God is all-powerful, how does God wield divine power? Or is God on our side and against the ___________ (fill in the blank here). Whatever you think of God, those thoughts are theological thoughts that reflect our basic beliefs.
  2. Our view of the world reflects our theological framework. Is the world God’s creation? Is humankind made in God’s image? And if God created the world and made humankind in God’s image, how do we live in the world and with others? Is God going to destroy creation or restore it? The answers to those questions shape our thoughts, beliefs and actions.
  3. Our understanding of Scripture relies on an inherent theology. How did the Bible come to us? And, what interpretive tools do we use to understand, interpret, and apply the Bible to our own circumstances. Is the Bible a rule book, a book of hidden mysterious codes, or the story of God’s people? Your answer depends on the theological system to which you subscribe.
  4. Our relationships are shaped by our theology. Do we believe that each of us is on our own individually? Or do we believe God’s people have valued community and the common good? Should we love our neighbor? How about our enemies? Do we live life altruistically, or with regard to our family, community, and nation first? Is Christ’s life, death and resurrection an example for our sacrificial service to others, or just for our own salvation? Ultimately, these are all theological questions.
  5. Our involvement in the wider world is driven by our theology. Are people in need our responsibility, or is everyone on their own? Should we work for God’s “will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” or is that something that will only come to pass when the Kingdom of God fully comes? Is God going to destroy the world, or save it?

Theology matters because our thoughts and actions toward creation, people, and suffering all matter. But, theology done well takes time, work, and intention. Good theology reflects love of God, concern for others, and commitment to God’s mission of hope and redemption. I can’t think of anything that matters more.

Sermon: What Is The Trinity and Why Should We Care?

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. This is a great opportunity to help one another experience the uniqueness and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Triune work of God. I hope your Sunday will be wonderful! 

What is the Trinity and Why Should We Care?

John 16:12-15 NIV

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

Today is Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. Frankly, I’m not sure I have ever preached a sermon on the Trinity as a theological concept. And, there are several reasons for that.

First, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. That is actually not that unusual because there are a number of theological concepts not found explicitly in the Bible that scholars and Church history and tradition have validated over the past 2,000 years. But the absence of direct teaching from the Bible on the Trinity makes it hard to find a passage of Scripture from which to launch out for a sermon. The passage we read today has hints of a trinitarian relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, but you have to look carefully for it.

The second reason I haven’t preached directly on the Trinity is because it is a topic, a concept, from the academic discipline called “systematic theology.” Systematic theology, briefly, is the attempt by Christian theologians to craft a coherent understanding of the work of God. Typically systematic theologies are crafted from Scripture, Church tradition, and the overarching philosophy of the particular theologian who is writing. So, the topics of systematic theology tend to be conceptual, and often difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t put a congregation to sleep quickly.

But, the primary reason I think I haven’t preached specifically on the Trinity is because it is one of those doctrines that Christians worldwide affirm, but have great difficulty explaining. The idea of One God in Three Persons — three-in-One — is a concept we have difficulty getting our heads around.

While in seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I served as associate pastor at a church in Irving. Next door to the church was a large apartment complex that for some reason tended to attract large numbers of international residents. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to several major universities such as SMU, TCU, and others, and perhaps that was the draw.

A couple of times young men from the Middle East, mostly Iranians, would come to the church office and ask to speak with a “holy man.” Apparently I was the closest thing we had to one, so I often got to talk with these young Muslim men. The primary thing they wanted to debate with me was the fact that Christianity had three gods. I would then try to explain the Trinity to them, but they, like me, had great difficulty in comprehending how One God could be constructed of Three Persons. I never convinced any of those young men that Christians worshipped One God, but that experience did remind me of how difficult the concept of the Trinity is to explain.

The Trinity in The Shack

Several years ago, an interesting book titled The Shack became a bestseller. The story was compelling, but one aspect of that book sparked discussion and disagreement among Christians. William Paul Young represented the Trinity in a very unique way.

For God the Father, Young portrayed God as a large black woman, who was outgoing, warm-hearted, and kind. For God the Holy Spirit, Young’s persona was that of an Asian woman dressed in bright colors who seemed to dart in and out of sight in a Tinkerbell-like fashion. For Jesus, the author pretty much stayed with the stereotype of Jesus as a workman, complete with jeans, flannel shirt, and toolbelt. Each of these personas of God exhibited unique characteristics, and each had a specific role to play in the fictional story.

But, as creative as that portrayal was, Young’s attempt to give the Trinity personality fell short of capturing the theology fully.

Early Heresies About the Trinity

This idea of the Triune God, the Trinity, is a difficult idea to grasp. And it has been difficult for Christians from the early church down to the present. Some attempts have failed miserably to capture the three-in-oneness of God completely. These imperfect attempts to define the Trinity became early Christian heresies. A heresy is a doctrine or teaching that is incompatible with the Church’s view of Scripture and the traditional understanding of the those who have gone before us.

The two primary heresies about the Trinity, although there are more than two, are modalism and subordinationism. First modalism: there were those who said that God was One God who just appeared in three different roles — or modalities —  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A good illustration of this is one I have heard used to describe the Trinity, but unfortunately it falls short.

The example is a easy one to grasp. I am Chuck Warnock, but I am husband to Debbie, father to Amy and Laurie, and pastor to this church. So, I am one person in three roles. But while this sort of gets at one aspect of the Trinity, it is actually a good example of the heresy of “modalism” — one god playing three different parts.

The other heresy is that God the Father is the supreme figure, while both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to him in some way. The details are not important, but trust me, this is not what the Bible teaches.

Early Creeds Address Misunderstandings About the Trinity

So, in order to correct the theological conversation, the early Church developed creedal statements that expressed what the Church believed. The first was the Apostles’ Creed, which we looked at in detail several years ago. The Apostles’ Creed simply affirms in three statements a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;

3. I believe in the Holy Spirit.

But The Apostles’ Creed left the door open for misunderstanding about the Trinity, so the Nicene Creed was developed from 325 AD, and took its final form in 381 AD.

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Note the detailed explanation of the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These details were included to correct the notion that God the Father was superior to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The “essence” of all three persons of the Godhead was, in other words, the same.

Theory Gives Way to Reality

But it’s one thing to assert something about the Trinity, to say we believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing.

So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make this morning, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world.

Let me give you some examples.

In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.

In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.

In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church.

In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.

Why Should We Care?

Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?”

This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world.

First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world.

For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after the tornadoes in Oklahoma last week, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house.

If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation.

Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.

So, that’s the downside of why the Trinity is important to us. But what’s the upside, what are the positive reasons we need to care about developing our own understanding of the Trinity.

We Learn Two Important Lessons From The Trinity

First, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our model for community. As God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit relate to one another, demonstrate love for each other, and work in concert to accomplish the purpose of God in the world, we get the idea of community.

This idea of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been depicted by many Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word which means, literally, “dancing around.” I like the implications of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do.

In the passage we read today, we find some of these elements of mutuality. Jesus says that the Spirit will guide his disciples, glorify Jesus, take what belongs to Jesus and give it to the disciples. But, everything Jesus has comes from the Father, and that is why the Spirit can make it known to the disciples.

If that sounds like circular reasoning, it is. God the Father creates, God the Son redeems, God the Spirit illuminates and equips. In this divine dance of mutuality, each person of the Godhead complements and builds on the work of other members of the Trinity.

So, at the baptism of Jesus, Jesus demonstrates his obedience to the plan of God through baptism. God the Father announces his approval, and the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for ministry.

In the early church, the Spirit empowers, equips, and emboldens the apostles to tell the good news of Jesus, who is God’s gift sent into the world to redeem it.

Secondly, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our mission. Jesus stated to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends us into the world to do the Father’s work, equipped and accompanied by the Spirit of God.

God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to bring in his kingdom on this earth, so that God’s creation can know the shalom of God — the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be.

So, God sends Jesus to bring the shalom of God — also called salvation — to the nation of Israel and to all who will respond, whether Jew or not. Which is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Father and Son then send the Spirit who equips, empowers, and emboldens the early apostles as well as us today.

And, salvation itself — the idea that we are right with God — proceeds from God, is incarnate in Jesus, and is made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever work we have to do in this world, we do from the standpoint of the Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit — who created, redeemed, and enabled us to do so.

So, let me encourage you today to think about the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we can’t stop at just thinking about a theological concept. As followers of Jesus, we are loved by the Father, and led by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of this church, and in the life of this world.

As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

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.

Sermon: Rethinking Our Ideas About God

Just when we think we’ve got this business of faith and doctrine all figured out, Jesus comes along to challenge our ideas about God.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow about a woman who wasn’t supposed to get in on the Kingdom of God, but who claims her place through faith.  There’s a lesson here for all of us as we rethink our ideas about God.

Rethinking Our Ideas About God

Matthew 15:21-28 NIV84

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Today’s lectionary gospel reading actually has two passages that at first glance might seem unrelated.  In the first passage, Matthew 15:10-20, the Pharisees ask Jesus why he lets his disciples break the law and practice of ceremonial hand washing before eating.  Of course, it is a good thing to wash your hands before you eat, and some folks go a bit further by applying that sticky anti-bacterial stuff to their hands.  You can’t be too careful today!

But, while hygiene may have been a problem in Jesus’ day – and I’m sure it was – that’s not what this passage is about.  The Pharisees, as they often did, were trying to bring any kind of accusation against Jesus to discredit him.  They tried trick questions, they dared him to heal someone on the Sabbath, they even were lying in wait for Jesus and his disciples as they walked through a grain field on the Sabbath and caught the disciples helping themselves to a little homemade granola – a few heads of grain rubbed in their palms – as a tasty snack.

After a long rebuttal to the Pharisees, whom Jesus calls blind guides, he then calls the crowd together and says, “Look, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him.”  Being “defiled” in Jewish life was a bad thing – it meant ceremonial uncleanness, and prohibition from participating in Temple worship until the proper offerings were made for restoration.  So, being defiled was not a good thing to be, and you certainly didn’t want to be defiled by an activity as common as eating.

But Jesus tells the crowd that he has gathered that day that what goes into a person is not what defiles him, including food eaten with unwashed hands.  Of course, mothers down through the centuries would disagree with Jesus here, but Jesus is now speaking spiritually, not as a health expert.

“Rather,” Jesus says, “it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles.”  In other words, what you say confirms what is in your heart.  To illustrate Jesus quotes from Isaiah by saying,

8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.”’  — Isaiah 29:13

Jesus wraps up the conversation by explaining to his own disciples what he means:

17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”  – Matt 15:17-20 NIV84

So, that was the first part of the Gospel reading for today, but the scene shifts quickly to another area, as Jesus and the disciples make their way into the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus has been in the region of Galilee, but now makes his way northwest to the coast, where the cities of Tyre and Sidon are found.

In that region, a Syro-Phoenician woman according to Mark, or a Canaanite woman according to Matthew, cries out to Jesus for help.

“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

Jesus appears to ignore the woman, who apparently keeps on crying out to Jesus to help her daughter.

The disciples become disturbed by this woman’s pleas, and approach Jesus with their plan.  Here it is –

“Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the disciples with this same plan when it came to feeding the 5,000.  Apparently, this is the only plan they have – get rid of people, send them away.

After all, people are a nuisance, they’re messing up the schedule, they’re sick, they’re demanding, they get hungry, they complain, and when Jesus does something for them, they seldom remember to thank him.

But this woman is even worse than the Judeans or the Galileans they are used to dealing with.  She’s not even a Jew.  She’s a woman from that region, of Syro-Phoenician descent, a stranger, a gentile, and she’s bothering Jesus and making a fuss on top of all of that.  What else is there to do other than send her away?

But when the disciples make that suggestion, Jesus doesn’t answer them directly, but turns to the woman (I’m imagining this is the scene now), and says –

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

I’m sure the disciples think, “Well, that will shut her up.”  But of course, it doesn’t.  Now a quick aside for a moment.  I read several commentaries on this passage and almost all of them said that this passage makes Jesus look bad because he seems to give her the brush-off.

But, what I think is happening is that Jesus is saying the words the disciples expect and have suggested, but Jesus knows that what he is really doing is engaging the woman, not brushing her off.

And, that’s exactly what happens because this woman, whom Matthew describes as a Canaanite woman, comes closer to Jesus, and kneels before him, and then continues her request by saying –

“Lord, help me!”

Now the situation has gotten worse, I’m sure the disciples are thinking.  Now the woman is even closer to Jesus than before, and now she is just begging for Jesus to help her.

Okay, hit the pause button right there.

Matthew describes this woman as a “Canaanite woman.”  So, we’ve got to be sure we get what’s going on here.  One source said that this term is used for merchants, because Tyre and Sidon are coastal cities, and engaged in trade and commerce as seaports.  But I don’t think that’s why Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman.

I think Matthew is trying to convey that this woman is not a Jew, and therefore not entitled to an encounter with the Messiah.  After all, Matthew’s primary theme is that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and that God has anointed Jesus as the Messiah of that Kingdom, which is exactly what “messiah” means – the anointed one.

So, this is a woman who has no claim to citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  If anything, she is to be excluded because her ancestors were the hated descendants of the son of Noah, Ham, and his son, Canaan, whom Noah curses with a curse in the book of Genesis.

But it is the Canaanites, and several other pagan tribes that the nation of Israel is to displace as God gives them the land of promise, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of Canaan.

Okay, beginning to get the picture?  Back to our story.

After this woman begs Jesus for help, Jesus’ reply to her is also puzzling to us:

Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

The “children” in this case is the nation of Israel, and the “dogs” in this case are everybody else.  Ta ethne’ or the nations, as they are often called in the New Testament.  The Gentiles, everybody not a Jew, that is.

What is the world is Jesus doing here?  This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know.  What happened to the Jesus who healed everybody?  What happened to the Jesus who fed everybody?  What happened to the Jesus who looked on the crowds and had compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd?

Well, that Jesus is still there.

Okay, a quick illustration to help us get what I think is going on here.  In the world of email and texting (for those of you who do not know what “texting” is, it’s using your cell phone to send short written messages to other people), in that world, it’s often difficult to tell if a person is joking or mad or happy or serious.

To solve the problem of giving emotion to words in the text, so that the receiver knows “Hey, I’m just kidding” – someone, probably several someones, starting making little symbols with the punctuation marks available on a keyboard.

The most frequently used is probably the happy face, which looks like this:  🙂

The second most frequent one used is probably the sad face, which looks like this:  😦

There are endless variations – the mad face, the amazed face, and so on.  You get the idea.  These little symbols made from punctuation marks, etc, are called “emoticons” because they help the person you are texting know what emotion you are trying to convey.

My point in relating all of that is that Matthew didn’t use any emoticons to help us know what Jesus was trying to do.  But there are no instances of Jesus turning anyone away except the religious leaders of his day.  There are no instances of Jesus refusing to heal or cast out demons.

So, this passage leaves us with a dilemma:  We either think Jesus was a) joking around; b) being incredibly rude and insensitive; or c) drawing the woman’s faith out for the disciples and all around to see.

Which is exactly what I think Jesus was doing.  He was giving this foreign woman an opportunity to express her faith, but he wanted others to see her faith, too.  I’ll tell you why in a moment.

So, Jesus has just said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

 One thing you did not call someone in that part of the world, was a dog.  Still today, that term is an insult.  Similar phrases are just as insulting today in the Western world.  I’ll not give you an illustration of that.

But rather than turn away in an indignant huff, the woman meets Jesus eye, and says clearly, “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

 Bingo!  She said exactly what was in her heart – even I, a Syro-Phoenician woman, even I am privileged to benefit from the blessing of God through the nation of Israel.  Even a person like me, and my daughter, who are not first in line to receive God’s blessing, even we can stand in the overflow and receive the love of God in all its glorious expression.

Because you see, this is what Jesus had been talking about earlier, in the first passage.  Here is a woman who is not religiously “clean” according to the Law.  She eats with unwashed hands, at least ceremonially according to Jewish law.

But there is something in her heart, and it comes out of her mouth.  Her faith in Jesus, whom she calls “Lord,” is expressed in her confidence that she has a right to ask and receive.

Which brings me to the sermon title today – “Rethinking Our Ideas About God.”  This woman makes us rethink our ideas about God.  She certainly made the disciples rethink their ideas about God because Jesus says to her –

“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” 

Matthew tells us that from that hour (meaning instantly) her daughter was delivered from the power of the demon which plagued her.  “She was healed” is what Matthew actually says, which is another way of saying, “She was saved.”  Health, wholeness, soundness of mind and body, were ways in which the idea of salvation was described in Jewish life.

So, what ideas of God do we have to rethink today?  Perhaps the same ones that the disciples had to rethink as they watched this dramatic dialogue between Jesus and a Canaanite woman.

We need to rethink the idea that God belongs to us.  That we are more special to God than other people, nationalities, races, or cultures.

We need to rethink the idea that we know exactly whom God loves and whom God doesn’t love.  Because most of the time you and I would not go home with the tax collector Zacchaeus, or eat with sinners, or be caught in the company of coarse fishermen and their families.  Most of us would rather have been with the regally-robed Pharisees, eating the finest food, Kosher of course, and hobnobbing with the best of Jerusalem’s  citizenry.

We need to rethink the idea that we have it right, this business of faith in God, because that sounds an awful lot like the Pharisee who prayed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

We need the humble persistence of this Canaanite woman, who just knew that Jesus could help her daughter, and that he would.  And I think she knew that she and Jesus were engaged in a public conversation, a dramatic bit of street theater, to show everyone around that it wasn’t just the Jews, or just the disciples, or just the people in Galilee or Judea whom God loved.  God also loved a Syro-Phoenician woman whose descendants were despised for their lack of understanding of God’s plan.

After all, it’s what comes out of our heart that counts.

 

10 Books That Changed My Life and Ministry

A fellow pastor emailed me with some kind words, and a suggestion — blog about the 10 books that changed my life and ministry.  What a great idea, and here goes, Clay!  Of course, the Bible goes without saying, but I said it anyway to avoid unnecessary comments on its absence from this list.  And, I’m not including books that influenced me as a kid, like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Captains Courageous, and Call of the Wild.  These are all post-MDiv discoveries which provided fundamental transformation in aspects of my theology and ministry practice.  Okay, here’s my list in no particular order —

1.  The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter.  This book changed how I look at the whole process of evangelization.  The memorable phrase in Hunter’s book for me was that Celtic Christians encouraged people to belong before they believed.  In other words, they incorporated strangers into the community with hospitality and many gradually came to accept the Gospel.  Hunter’s book piqued my interest in reading more about Celtic Christianity, but there is no doubt this book changed my ministry.

2. Jesus Christ For Today’s World by Jurgen Moltmann.  This was the first book I read by Jurgen Moltmann, and tears came to my eyes reading this phrase: “The Bible is the book of remembered hopes.”  What a wonderful description and Moltmann moved me then, and still does several volumes later.  One of his latest books, Son of Righteousness, ARISE, is spectacular.  Moltmann’s conversion story captures the hope of the Gospel, and his theology of hope is the result.

3. The World’s Religions by Huston Smith.  This is one of those classic texts that should be in every library, minister or not.  Smith’s reputation and sympathetic treatment of the world’s great religions is unsurpassed.  I have new appreciations for other faith expressions.  When read along with Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s An Introduction to the Theology of Religions, one can appreciate how Christian theologians through the ages have dealt with the issue of world religions.  Get the illustrated edition of Smith’s book if you can because the graphics add much to the telling of these ancient stories.

4. Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh.  If you have not read Thich Nhat Hanh, please do so.  Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, a Zen master, a peace activist nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a gentle soul.  His books are short, often repetitive, but his writing has a calm and reassuring affect.  Nhat Hanh also talks a great deal about practice, primarily the practice of mindfulness.  I have used his breathing technique many times to “calm body and mind” as he teaches.  One of the renown Buddhist scholars and teachers today, Thich Nhat Hanh is perhaps second only to the Dalai Lama in worldwide influence.

5. Dissident Discipleship by David Augsburger.  I read this book for a class I took from David Augsburger, but I was captivated by his Mennonite witness and his multi-faceted approach to discipleship.  Augsburger writes about “tripolar spirituality” which includes God, self, and others as foundational to following Jesus.  If you don’t know David Augsburger, this is the book to start with.

6. Night by Elie Wiesel.  The Holocaust is an inexplicable horror and Wiesel writes his first-person account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps.  The tone is understated for the tragedy speaks for itself.  Wiesel presents the question of evil and suffering in graphic detail and comes away with no answers, only memories.  A classic that should be read by anyone concerned with evil, suffering, and the presence of God in its midst.

7. Covenant of Peace by Willard Swartley.  Swartley’s subtitle for this book is “The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics.”  His contention is that peace has been neglected, and that God’s shalom is the heart of our theology.  Written from a Mennonite appreciation for peace as a practice, this book convinced me that peace with God, man, and creation is what God is ultimately up to.  Swartley makes his case compellingly, and he changed my perspective on peace.  If you like John Howard Yoder, you’ll love Swartley.

8. ______________ by N. T. Wright.  Okay, I’m cheating here, but N. T. Wright has been a tremendous influence on me.  His books on Jesus, Paul, the Bible, and eschatology (Surprised by Hope) are amazing. Wright gave me a new perspective on the “new perspectives” on Jesus and Paul, and with it a firm connection to the contexts in which Jesus and Paul ministered.  I believe Wright calls his approach “biblical realism” or “historical realism” or something like that which I have not taken the time to look up and footnote.  Whether you agree with Wright or not (John Piper does not), Wright is a force to be reckoned with in theological insight.

9.  Gandhi: An Autobiography by M. K. Gandhi.  I have a Buddhist, so why not a Hindu on my list?  Of course, Gandhi transcends categories, both cultural and religious.  Martin Luther King took his nonviolent approach to civil rights from Gandhi.  Gandhi changed the British empire, liberated his people, and left his mark on the world by demonstrating that nonviolent resistance in love is an irresistible force.  See the movie, read the book, Gandhi’s life is one you must know.

10. The Friends of God by Meister Eckhart and company.  Of course, this is not a real book, but I have been more influenced by Meister Eckhart and the gottes freunde in the 14th century than I can attribute to one book.  I’m reading Dorothee Soelle’s book, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, and she quotes extensively from Eckhart.  Of course, Eckhart and the friends of God were mystics in that German sort of way that gets your head spinning when you read their stuff.  But they were, and continue to be, a tremendous influence in the arena of the immediate experience of God.

I also could have added Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, Taitetsu Unno (Buddhist), Marcus Borg (no, I do not agree with everything Borg says), Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, and Leonardo Boff.  Plus, Thomas More, Richard Foster, Piero Ferruci (The Power of Kindness) and Cynthia Bourgeault.  Plus, I am sure, many others whose books have affected my life and ministry by providing new information, insight, inspiration, and challenge.

What are the top 10 books that have changed your life and ministry?

Entertaining Angels: Who are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

Entertaining Angels:  Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”? Or again,
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”? 6And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Why Angels?

Today I am beginning an eight-week series titled Entertaining Angels.  That might seem to suggest that we’re going to look at the most entertaining angels in the Bible, but that’s not quite it.  Frankly angels have been called a lot of things, but entertaining is probably not one of them.

But I’m taking the title from the passage in Hebrews 13:2 KJV, which says —

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13:2 KJV

My interest in the topic of angels was piqued over the Christmas holiday by the news that Anne Rice has come out with a new book titled, Angel Time.  You may remember Anne Rice as the wildly popular author who gave vampires a very hip and sexy remake in her Vampire Chronicles series.  Tom Cruise played Lestat, the very attractive yet deadly vampire, in the 1994 movie, Interview with the Vampire. Rice is generally credited with reviving, if you’ll forgive the pun, the entire vampire myth and making vampires a part of popular culture in the last decade of the 20th century.

But something happened to Anne Rice, avowed atheist, along the way:  Anne Rice returned to the faith of her childhood, the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll let you explore the details of her recommitment to Christ, but shortly after her change of heart, she began writing about Jesus.  Her first book about Jesus published in 2005 was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, was followed by a second in her announced four book series, called Christ the Lord: The Road To Cana.

Her latest book, Angel Time, is the first in her new Songs of the Seraphim series.  Rice being the successful author that she is, knows a good thing when she sees it.

I recently posed the question in my blog, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor — “Are angels the new vampires?”  By that I meant, Will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires in the last decade?  I posted the article that asked that question last Sunday.  In less than one week over 1,000 people read that article.  And, to make things even more interesting, Anne Rice (I’m sure it was someone who works for Anne, and not Anne herself) linked my article to her website under reviews of the book, Angel Time.

The response to my article got me to thinking about the interest in angels, and about what we typically know about angels.  When Dan Brown published The DaVinci Code, the American Christian community was up in arms over that book which told an intriguing tale of secret societies, and the heretofore untold story of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene.  All of which, was totally made up stuff, but Dan Brown didn’t care because he sold millions of copies, and created a flurry of publicity that made even those who disagreed with Brown want to read his book.

My point in resurrecting The DaVinci Code controversy is to tell you why I’m preaching this series on angels.  Wouldn’t we be better off to know more about what the Bible and the historic church fathers say about angels than not?  So, before Anne Rice does for angels what she did for vampires, we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about angels for ourselves.

But, there’s another, more important reason than Anne Rice or Dan Brown or popular culture for entertaining the idea of angels:  No other topic in scripture is so widely misunderstood, or ignored than the topic of angels.  So, we’ll be entertaining angels in this series for the next eight weeks.

According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 68% of Americans believe in angels, 15% are unsure, and only 17% do not believe in angels.  These were not church members necessarily, but a cross section of American adults.  If you add those who believe in angels and those who don’t know, that’s a total of 83% of Americans who believe, or don’t know, if angels exist.  Only slightly more than that believe in God, so angels are pretty popular with the general public.

Who Are Angels?

In the Christian Year, angels crop up on two primary occasions — the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ.  Christmas and Easter, in other words.  But, as I said earlier, there is probably no topic, no other doctrine, that is so widely featured in Scripture both Old and New that is so widely ignored.  It’s as though we see the word angel, and simply skip over it, or relegate the idea of angels to another day and time.

Of course, that is exactly correct.  Before the Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, the world was thought to be inhabited by spirits, both evil and good.  Gargoyles perched on the sides of the great cathedrals of Europe to serve as downspouts, but also to remind worshippers that evil lurked outside the walls of the church.  Some also believe that gargoyles also were placed on church buildings to frighten away evil spirits.  Either way, most people, including Christians, believed that unseen spirits existed and affected personal and community events.

But with the Enlightenment and the adoption of the scientific method, religion was relegated to the world of superstitions and improbabilities.  There was no scientific proof of angels, demons, or even God Himself, and so while it was okay to continue to believe personally and privately in the scientifically unverifiable, religion was not a suitable subject for rational people to go on about.

While the Enlightenment did give the world great advances in the sciences, religion and the belief in the unseen world became merely a source of speculation, opinion, and superstition.  That included angels and demons, of course.

The Flaw of the Excluded Middle

Paul Hiebert, the late Fuller Seminary missiologist, wrote a classic paper titled, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”  In that paper, Hiebert painted the picture of the typical Western missionary beliefs, or for that matter the typical Western Christian beliefs.

Hiebert, who served as a missionary to India himself, tells this story:  One day while teaching at the Bible school Shamshabad, a local Indian pastor named Yellayya appeared at the classroom door.  He was obviously tired from the long walk from his village.  Hiebert finished the class and greeted his friend.  As they talked, Yellayya explained that many in his village had contracted smallpox.

As was the village custom, the elders, who were not Christians, had consulted the local diviner who told them that the goddess Maisamma was angry with the village.  The village would have to perform the water buffalo sacrifice to appease this goddess.

To conduct the sacrifice, each village family was asked to give something toward the purchase of the buffalo.  This shared offering was not just to raise enough money, but to show that all the villagers recognized Maisamma’s anger and were making this sacrifice together.

Of course, you can imagine the reaction of the Christians in the village.  Although a minority, the Christian families refused initially to participate in the offering or the sacrifice because Maisamma was a pagan goddess.  Under extreme pressure, some Christian families wanted to participate because merchants were refusing to sell to them, and they had been forbidden to draw from the village well until they gave.  But their pastor, Yellayya, would not give them permission.

To make matters worse, Yellayya said that one of the Christian girls had also contracted smallpox.  Yellayya wanted Paul Hiebert to come to the village to pray for the girl’s healing.  Hiebert went, but as he knelt in prayer in the village, he said the thoughts of total inadequacy raced through his mind.  He believed in God, he had attended seminary, and yet here he was praying a prayer for healing in a spiritual showdown between Hinduism and Christianity.

It was at the moment that Hiebert realized that his faith had answers for the future including heaven and God’s eternal reign.  He also realized that his faith had answers about the past including how sin had come into the world, and how Christ had come to provide forgiveness to humankind.  But Hiebert realized, he had very few answers for the present, like what do you do when a child is sick, or others explain life events by the presence of unseen spirits.

Hiebert returned to his teaching, and the next week Yellayya showed up again.  The girl had died.  But Yellayya was excited because the non-Christian villagers had seen the hope of resurrection and the belief that her family would see her again in heaven.  All of them realized that even if the girl had been healed, she would have died eventually as all do.  But the Christian hope for a life beyond this life had captured the imagination of those who were not Christian, and they wanted to know more.  — Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, pgs. 189-201.

Even though that story turned out well, Hiebert still wrestled with the gap in Western Christianity and our ignorance of the unseen world.

And that is why we are talking about angels for the next eight weeks.  What would you have done if Yellayya had asked you to come to his village and pray for the healing of the Christian girl?  Would you have faced the same internal conflict Paul Hiebert did?  Would you have had the same uneasiness about the unseen world, and about the ability of God to heal?

The Basics About Angels

Who, then, are angels?  Although almost 7-out-of-10 Americans believe in angels, we believe mostly in the cartoon or greeting card version of angels.  Or we love the cute and cuddly cherubs that adorn our Christmas cards each year.  But who are angels, if they are not as we commonly see them portrayed?

First, angels are created beings.  In Colossians 1:16, Paul says that —

16For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

The terms Paul uses — “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” — are believed by most theologians to be an incomplete list of the orders of angels.  Even Billy Graham, in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, acknowledges these words as titles for part of the hierarchy of angels.

An early heresy that surfaced in the first century stated that angels “emanated” from God, as though they were part of God Himself, now separate from God, and therefore divine and worthy of worship.  Paul also refutes this idea in Colossians 2:18 —

18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

Secondly, angels were created before the world.  In Job 38:4-7, God says to Job —

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-

7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

So, the angels were present at creation, but are themselves created beings.  In addition, here are some other characteristics of angels that Christians have believed during the 2,000 years of church history —

  • All the angels were created at once, and there are no more angels now than there were at their creation.
  • The angels who rebelled against God did so prior to the creation of earth and mankind.
  • There are more good angels than there are those who rebelled.
  • Angels are individuals, yet they have no bodies unless they take an appearance to communicate with humankind.  — Pascal Parente, The Angels
Why Do We Need Angels?

We’ll explore more of the characteristics and mission of angels in the next seven weeks, but we need to answer one other question first — Why do we need angels?

After all, aren’t angels sort of Christian folklore — nice to read about, but more like fairies, leprechauns, and other fantastic creatures? Why do we need them in the 21st century?

Here is where our Baptist statement of belief — The Baptist Faith and Message — is strangely silent. Nowhere is the word “angel” mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message. But dozens of scripture passages are cited to support the statements of belief and many of these refer to angels. Do we really need angels now, and why?

First, it’s not up to us to determine whether or not we need angels. Angels are God’s creation, and as such are good, as all of creation was pronounced by God.

But angels are in a class by themselves. In the coming weeks, we’re going to see that there are at least 9 varieties of celestial beings, but for now we’ll just call all of them angels. But even at that angels are unique in several ways.
Angels were created before mankind, and mankind is said to have been created in the image of God.
Angels are higher than mankind in the created order. In Psalms 8:6, the psalmist is praising God’s creation of man, but he does so by saying — 4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Angels are God’s messengers. Angels appear in both the Old Testament and New, delivering the message of God to God’s people. Consider the life of Jesus —
angels announce his coming birth to both Joseph and Mary;
an angel announces the birth of John the Baptist to his father, Zacharias;
angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds;
angels minister to Jesus in the desert after his temptation by Satan;
angels announce his resurrection at the empty tomb;
angels accompany Jesus as he ascends into heaven;
angels appear to the apostles on several occasions;
and John writes of Jesus coming with all his holy angels when he returns to earth.
And those are only a few of the references to angels as God’s messengers.
Angels are more numerous than we can imagine. In scripture, as they are beheld by the writers of the Bible, the angel hosts are described as so numerous “no man can number;” in the book of Daniel, they are described in this manner — A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

Secondly, angels are God’s messengers, God’s army, God’s protectors, and God’s servants. They perform their work for the holy Trinity of God, most of which is unseen or unknown by us. Angels exist, not for our entertainment or contact, but for God’s purposes.

Third, Jesus spoke of angels, angels attended him, and he will return with the entire host of heaven under his command. It would probably do us some good to know a little about “the angel armies” before that time comes.

Finally, angels are at work in the world today. Imagine sitting next to you on the pew, right beside you, is your guardian angel. Or, imagine that as we sing each Sunday, angels “join the mighty chorus” of our praise to God. Imagine this building ringed with part of the angel army of God, swords drawn, allowing us to worship without interference of either man or demon.

The writer of Hebrews, in the passage we read today, reminds us —

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

So, the question today is not, Do angels exist, or do we have angels? The question today is what are we doing to cooperate with the messengers of God who daily do God’s bidding? If we have no idea what our answer is, then that is all the more reason we need to be aware of this part of God’s creation we call angels.

A Story of Angels

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2001, Tobi Gabriel and her young son, Gage, left her mother’s home to rent a movie and see some friends. In Moncton, New Brunswick, the weather was rainy and the temperature was dropping. When Tobi and Gage had not returned home by 11 PM, her parents phoned the police and reported her missing. Most folks usually turn up okay, they were assured, and the police told them that no accidents had been reported, so everything must be okay. But it wasn’t.

Early on Christmas morning Linda Belliveau, who lived in the nearby town of Lower Cove, went out to watch for her parents who were coming for Christmas breakfast. Despite the roar of the ocean waves behind her, Linda heard what she thought was the sound of a child crying. Of course, that was impossible at that hour of the morning and in the frigid weather.

But the cry continued and Linda made her way to the beach. There she saw a car lying upside down on the beach. She thought it had probably plunged off the roadway during the night because the ocean spray often turned to ice on the seaside road.

But there was something else that caught her eye. A small figure crawling toward her on the sand. A little child, drenched and frightened. Linda ran to the boy, picked him up and took off her own coat to wrap him in.

In the waves she saw the body of his mother, floating face down in the surf.

Little Gage was taken to the hospital. An investigation determined that Tobi’s car had skidded off the road sometime between 6 and 10 PM that night. No one heard the crash, however. Tobi was killed on impact because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Little Gage somehow survived.

Sergeant Dale Bogle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited little Gage in the hospital, asking him very gently some questions about the accident.

Little Gage looked up at Sergeant Bogle during a quiet moment.

“I saw two girls,” Gage said.

Office Bogle was amazed. “You did? Where?”

“Standing in the water, next to Mommy. Their dresses were white.”

Sergeant Bogle asked, “Did they talk to you?”

“No,” Gage replied, “They just smiled at me all night until the other lady came.”

Gage’s grandfather calls him a “gift from God.” He’s older now, of course, and hardly speaks of the accident at all. –( Joan Wester Anderson, In The Arms of Angels, pgs. 1-6.)

Were the “girls” he saw angels? No one knows, except of course, God. Angels are, after all, His messengers.

Amen.