Sunday, October 27, 2013

Steady Plodding and Ordinary Time

Luke 13:18–19 (NKJV)
18 Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”

As 21st century Americans who profess the Christian faith, we can often be tempted to muddle our Christianity with our Americanness. This temptation to mistake our broader culture for Christian piety is not unique to us, but the particular ways in which our culture influences us are unique. One way our American culture affects our conception of Christianity is our love affair with that which is spontaneous or new or different. We tend to grow tired of, what we call, the “same old thing” and have a hankering for some new fad to bring life back into our Christian walk.

But what Jesus articulates for us in his parables of the kingdom is that the way the Holy Spirit works both in our individual lives and in the life of His Church is better pictured by the growth of a tree than the lighting of a sparkler. Sparklers, of course, are fun and exciting – they burn bright and shed their fire on all around them. But sparklers soon burn out while trees, planted and taking root, slowly grow over time; growing almost imperceptibly, soaking up the nutrients in the soil and increasingly displaying the glory of their Creator.

This steady, slow, natural growth is the way Christ typically works in the lives of His disciples. Normal Christian growth involves long periods of steady plodding – plodding that brings prosperity but plodding nonetheless. Steady plodding. Few sprints; mainly marathons. A long obedience in the same direction.

You may not know, but the last five months in the Church Year are called “ordinary time.” It is a time of year when there are no special feasts and celebrations; we’re in the time of the Spirit’s work in the Church. After the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit began working in the Church, gradually transforming the people of God into the image of Christ. Hence the color of this period is green, a color of growth.

One thing that you may have noticed, if you’ve been here a while, is that for these last five months we have used the same greeting, the same words of confession, and the same version of the Creed. For five months. Why have we done this? There’s no biblical requirement that we do so. We could have changed them weekly, monthly, periodically – as we have done in the past. God has left these things to the wisdom of church officers. So why have we kept the Call to Worship, the Confession, and the Creed the same? To highlight that the course of our Christian lives is only occasionally interrupted by unusual acts and works of God. More typically God works in our lives through steady plodding, slow growth, gradual transformation – through what theologians have called the ordinary means of grace: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Very soon we’re coming upon changes – moving to a new building, entering a new church year when Advent arrives and we’ll have a different Call to Worship, a different Confession, a different Creed. Before we change, I wanted to draw to your attention the fact that for these last five months these have been the same. Perhaps you noticed; perhaps you’ve wondered if this is ever going to change. And perhaps you’ve thought the same thing about periods in your own life and spiritual development. And the message of Jesus is that He is at work growing His kingdom and even growing you.

Reminded that Jesus’ work in our lives is often gradual, like the growth of a tree, we are alerted that often our hankering for something spontaneous or new or different is not an impulse of our Christian faith but our Americanness. And this reminds us that we need to confess our fickleness to the Lord and ask Him to enable us to practice a long obedience in the same direction. So let us kneel as we confess our sins together.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Without Grumbling and Disputing

Philippians 2:14–16 (NKJV)
14 Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

This week the students in the homeschool cooperative are memorizing Philippians 2:14 and the verse has proved so convicting for me in the past week that I thought I would share the blessing. As we move into our new facility, there will be numerous occasions for us to implement the command which Paul gives us – to do all things without complaining and disputing. So I thought it would be good to consider Paul’s admonition.

First, let us understand what Paul commands. He commands us to do all things  without complaining and disputing. Note that Paul gives us no exceptions. All things – whether we’re laboring at home or at school or at church or at work or wherever, we are to do all these things without complaining and disputing. In other words, we are to do the things we’re asked to do without complaining about the work or arguing with the one who has given us the work.

Second, let us note the difficulty of what Paul commands. We live in a fallen world, a world in which we continue to experience sickness, decay, disappointment, fear, and frustration. We live in a world in which parents, elders, employers, and magistrates make what seem to us, and what sometimes are, unreasonable demands. Yet Paul commands us to do all things without complaining and disputing. Does this not seem impossible?

Third, note the rationale for Paul’s command: that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. As we learn to do all things without complaining and disputing, we are learning to imitate our Lord Jesus Christ – he who was and is perfect man, blameless and harmless. And as we imitate Him, we will be the light of the world, the instruments whom the Lord will use to bring others to know Him and to worship Him in the world.

So as we move into the new building, God is providing us with an opportunity to shine as lights in the world. As we move into this building and receive it with thanksgiving, rejoicing even in the things we aren’t excited about, we’ll show the world what it is like to serve our Heavenly Father. The new building is not as beautiful nor as large and accommodating as this facility – shall we give thanks? The new building still needs some work, there are things we haven’t been able to afford yet – shall we give thanks? Many of you haven’t seen the new building since some changes have been made – you might be tempted to ask, “Why’d they do that? Change that? Spend money on that?” – shall you instead give thanks? This is our calling and our privilege as children of God. To manifest our trust in God by being thankful.

That which applies to this new building, applies to every area of our life. And the difficulty of Paul’s command reminds us how often in ourselves we fall short and how much we need the grace and forgiveness of God. So reminded of this, let us confess our sin to the Lord, seek his forgiveness, and ask him for grace to do all things without complaining and disputing. Let us kneel as we confess our sin to the Lord.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

God Gave Wine

Psalm 104:14–15 (NKJV)
14 [God] causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, 15 And wine that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man’s heart.

As we anticipate moving soon to our new facility, I’d like to take a momentary break from our meditations on the Ten Commandments to prepare for our move. We have rented from the good folks here at the Seventh Day Adventist Church for almost three years. In an effort to respect the convictions of our brethren, we have refrained from the use of wine in communion. But when we move into our new building, we’ll be resuming the use of wine and wanted to give a brief defense. After all, some of you joined us while here at the SDA building and may not even know that we use wine in communion. So in the interest of no surprises I wanted to address the issue.

It is always a temptation for us as the people of God to substitute our own wisdom for the wisdom which God has given in His Word. We can be tempted either to permit things that God has forbidden or to forbid things that God has permitted. It was in the midst of addressing this latter temptation, the temptation to forbid things that God has permitted, that Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5:

For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

Paul reminds us that God has fashioned and molded the world and that we are to receive the things that he has given with gratitude and thanksgiving. So notice the psalmist doing what Paul articulates:

[God] causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man’s heart.

Within the American church, there has been a strong impulse to edit out the first half of verse 15 and eliminate the psalmist’s praise of “wine that makes glad the heart of man.” Vegetation – yes! Oil – yes! Bread – yes! But wine? We’re not so sure. Grape juice yes; but wine?

Our reticence often stems from the frequent abuse of alcohol – and make no mistake that the abuse of alcohol, drunkenness, is a sin. Paul commands us, “Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” But the same Scriptures that identify drunkenness as a sin also identify wine itself as a gift from God – a gift to gladden the heart of man.

Jesus testified to the blessing of wine at the wedding of Cana when he turned the water into wine and brought joy to the bridegroom and the bride. And it is wine that Jesus drank with his disciples on the night he was betrayed – and so it is wine that we will use when we are at liberty to do so in our own building.

So why is it that we often create these extra strictures and forbid things that God permits in His Word? One reason is our persistent temptation to identify the cause of our sinfulness in something outside of us. If alcohol is the problem, then my heart is not the problem, my desires are not the problem, my love for someone and something more than God Himself is not the problem.

But the Word of God does not let us off so easily. My problem, your problem, is not outside of me or outside of you – our problem is in our hearts. Out of the heart proceeds drunkenness, our abuse of the good gift of wine that God has given. So why does God give us wine in the Supper? He gives us wine to remind us that Jesus died to rescue us from our sinful inclinations and to enable us to use his gifts aright. So reminded of our propensity to twist God’s good gifts and use them for evil, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.