1/29/2017 Sermon – Starting Fresh #4: “Given the Kingdom”

Ancient site of the city of Lystra, in Galatia. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

This January, we’ve gotten off to a fresh start.  The holidays are done, we took down the decorations and turned a page.  Do you put away all your decorations, or are there some that you leave up all year around?

This is the fourth of six in the Fresh Start series, and we’re using the six chapters of Paul’s letter to the Galatians as a guide. 

Paul is writing to the churches in Galatia because they seem to have contracted a kind of spiritual infectious disease.  Instead of experiencing faith in Jesus as the freedom life-giving liberation it can be, they are being tempted to turn it into life-sapping religious practice.  Some folks have come from the home office of Christianity in Jerusalem and suggested that if they are to be authentic believers in Jesus, they should be more Jewish, like he was.  Follow the rules, obey the laws.  It’s a problem.  Paul thinks of it as being in prison, being in slavery.

You might think that this is nothing more than interesting history, but it’s a problem today, too.  Without an inner core of belief in the resurrection of Jesus and a trusting relationship with him, the rules don’t mean much. They can even be a distraction.  What we do as God’s church, wherever you are, is so much more.  It’s my hope that everyone listening or reading, at some point, hears God speaking to them and responds with “Yes, Lord.  I’m yours.  With all my faults and problems, I’m yours.  Forgive me: I believe in your son Jesus.”

God then begins to live inside you and change you in ways that are hard to describe.  This is God the Spirit at work.  This is freedom.

Sometimes, for God to have enough room to work, you have to reach bottom, you have to have deep need.  You have to be at a point of knowing in your deepest self that only God can help you.  I believe that this is true for churches as well.

The freedom that comes from faith is contagious.  Following rules for the sake of following rules is not contagious.  I think we can admit that sometimes what we do as Christ’s Body, the Church, can be too organized.  That can leave folks with the wrong impression.  What we do here is dispense freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

It’s a good thing to have a support system for your faith in Christ. That yoke of slavery is religion for the sake of the religion without Christ at the heart of it.

In the fourth chapter of Galatians, Paul gives a little illustration of what he’s talking about.

Galatians 4:1-7.  My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. 4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

To summarize that idea: we start out enslaved, captive and contained.  At some level, people need boundaries and limits – external forces making us “behave.”  We kids need those rules, right?  God gave laws to keep humanity under control.  Left to ourselves, we can be very out of control.  Don’t you agree?  And even our some of laws are flawed.  But God is not satisfied to leave us that way.

God sends Jesus to break us free from captivity, to pay the penalty for our disobedience.  Jesus redeems us, sets us free.

When we believe, when we have faith, instead of being contained and controlled from the outside, God begins to work on the inside.

“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” (Galatians 4:6)

The prophet Jeremiah saw it coming.  God says,

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

In Christ, when we believe, God brings us into the family, into the household, into relationship.  We were outside; now we’re inside.  We are family.  We are heirs.  God gives us the kingdom. We are inheritors!  Have you ever inherited anything? A lot of us have.  And many of us have prepared ourselves to leave an inheritance.

Ralph was a typical blue collar guy who happened to be distantly related to the British monarchy.  When all the royalty family was suddenly wiped out, he was next in line.  He inherits the kingdom…

No, not that kind of kingdom!  Ralph finds out that being king isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and huge wealth does not bring happiness.  In fact, that can even be another kind of slavery.

When we give control of our lives to God, God gives us God’s kingdom, give us the keys to the house – we don’t have to wait – and it’s pretty amazing.

This kingdom is that world of faith where God lives in you and all the other believers around you.  This is the new life you receive when you believe.  This is God inside, helping you cope when it seems like everything is going wrong.

It was never about comfort or wealth or prosperity.  It’s about relationship.

This is Abba, Father, Papa, Dad.  God becoming so close, you can say that we internalize the heart of God into our own.

A few years later, Paul expanded the idea for the believers in Rome:

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  Romans 8:15 

Think about that for a minute!  This just got deeper.  When we believe, we become heirs with Christ, leading to being glorified with Christ, but on a path of suffering.  Sacrifice.  Hmmm.  So God never promises that a life of faith will be easy.

There’s a Christian therapist who puts it this way: God gives us a “sanctified gut.” Instead of being controlled by the rules, God leads us from inside.  We begin to know when our motivations are selfish or harmful.  The voice of God becomes that sense of aching conviction, the discomfort that comes with not living the way God designed you to live.  We begin to learn wisdom: the leading of the Spirit within and not just a “spiritual opinion.”

Rules and laws are obvious and public. But God the Spirit inside us is personal. Following the Spirit’s leading takes practice, and it’s something we do together. We work at it and do our best to honor what God wants for us – and to invite as many others into the kingdom as God gives us the opportunity to reach.

Prayer

God, we are living in troubling and difficult times. We continue to pray for the president and our national leadership.

We live in a world that needs you.  Free us from the belief that we are small and insignificant and have nothing to say.  Free us from thinking that the problems of our community and world are too big for us to deal with or change – that we can’t possibly make a difference.  We forget we are children of the most-high God.

Help us live our lives filled with you and the power of your love.  Help us, each day, feel a sense of calling – that there is a ministry you give each of us – and all of us together, as we live and serve in a world full of need and injustice. Walk with us as we suffer.  We know you are leading us to glory.

None of this, Lord, can we do on our own, but only through faith, and the power of your Spirit and your love flowing through us. We believe, Lord, help our unbelief.  Amen.

1/22/2017 Sermon – Starting Fresh #3: “Set Free”

CN hydrating during a youth mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

This series is called “Starting Fresh.”  It’s January; it’s not too late to think of “New Year’s resolutions,” if anybody still does that anymore!  I’m trying some new resolutions and the jury is still out.  New habits are hard.  It’s like that every year.  I confess: I have limits to how much I’m willing to change, and these limits are mostly all self-imposed.  I think what I think, I do what I do in certain ways to keep life manageable.  It’s a good thing, mostly.  But I have been told sometimes that I need to start doing a new thing in order to have a better quality of life.  Even that is hard.  Simple stuff, like drinking more water.

Along with our Wednesday night Bible Study here at St. Paul’s, we’re using the Book of Galatians as a point of reference for our fresh start.  If there was a key verse from Galatians to remember, a kind of summary, it might be this one:

 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

Jesus would love for all of us to experience our relationship with him as freedom, as in, having been set free.  Free of the chains and shackles and limitations of life.

Last week, we heard Paul speak sternly to the Galatian churches about believing in Christ for their salvation more than trusting in religious traditions.  Religious rules might help to point the way, but they are not a substitute for a relationship with the real, living, risen Jesus who loves you.  In scripture, the laws and rules have purpose – they point the way to God.  They are the means to an end, but without the “end,” without the embrace from God that trusting faith brings, they can be a kind of prison.  That’s what Paul talks about today in the third chapter of Galatians.

Galatians 3  Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

If someone were to ask you, “How can I become a Christian?” you might be able describe your own story, as Paul did in the first chapter of Galatians, or point to some helpful scripture to answer that question.  I’ve had several Bibles with passages highlighted to reach people who are searching, like these words of Paul from Romans:

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because* if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  (Romans 10:8-10)

Believe in the risen Jesus, speak to the risen Jesus, confirm your faith by speaking about the risen Jesus, and the mystery takes hold.  God begins to work.  It’s supernatural.

But what if you had no scriptures like that?  What if you had no written Bible stories at all?  What if the only Christian story that you had to give away was you?  And that was the situation in Galatia.

As we have been thinking about Paul’s letters to the churches in Galatia, it’s important to know that these words are some of the first words in writing to any church anywhere.

It was all new.  Jesus had lived and died and rose from death only a few years before.  Christian faith, Church, worship, fellowship, how does it work?  No owner’s manual!  All they had was what the Spirit of God was telling them through Paul and his friends, and showing them in their own lives, which were changing because of Christ.  Before, after!

As you’ve heard over the last couple of weeks, Paul is writing this letter because some Jewish Christians have come to help the Galatians understand the rules. They have been saying, “Don’t forget, Jesus was Jewish, and to be a complete Christian, you really should follow Jewish laws.”  They are confused, so Paul needs to write.  He is not happy.

If you think the Bible is a bunch of dry words with no emotion, you should read the beginning verses of this chapter.  These folks are being steered away from their relationship with God and to Paul, this is huge.  These are his friends and he cares.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish?  (Galatians 3:1-3)

Then he calms down a bit and begins to explain why this is so important.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.   (Galatians 3:23-26)

Imprisoned, guarded  – under control. That’s what religious laws and rules can do.  Paul says that until Christ came to set us free and bring us into the family, the law was our disciplinarian.

The Greek word is “pedagogue” – a teacher of children.  But in that time, this was a specific kind of teacher. In Roman and Greek families, the pedagogue was a slave whose only job was to carefully supervise young children, both in and out of the home. The pedagogue was not really a teacher, but was an “enforcer,” who made sure that strict rules of discipline and correct behavior were practiced. I know some of you are thinking.  Yes – we need a pedagogue in the house!

Some people think about church that way.  God is like Miss Trunchbull from the movie “Matilda”!  But that is not what God wants for us; that is not how Christian faith is experienced.

27As many of you as were baptized [cleansed by faith] into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. [you’ve been part of God’s plan since God had a plan to save people]

 When you have faith, you are clothed with Christ.  God looks at you and sees Jesus.  You are connected, and God is able to create in you the kind of life you should be living.  Think of the law as that voice inside you that keeps telling you you’re not worthy, you don’t measure up and nothing can help you.  Faith in Christ sets you free!  Take yourself back to that moment when Christ set you free and how that felt.

Next to the resurrection of Christ, it might have been the most amazing good news about the Christian faith in that time and place.  Now too!  God really does not care who you are, what your culture is, what your background is, or where you’ve been, or the wounds you have on your body.  New life in Christ is yours if you believe.  No strings attached.  God does not care if you’re Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, old or young, from Manheim, New York, or Philadelphia (or wherever you happen to be), liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.  Faith in Christ is the great equalizer.  Faith in Christ is what sets us free and brings us together.

Imprisoned, guarded, under control.  The United States has the one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and there are many ministries to prisoners.  There are all sorts of prisons, and a lot of them have nothing to do with heavy steel gates and guards.  These are the things that keep you from the rich, full life God has for you when you have faith.

Work habits, social attitudes, and anything that creates “us and them.”  Our addiction to “things” and lifestyle and habits and behaviors lead to consequences that become other kinds of prisons.   As Paul has been describing, even religious practice can be a kind of a prison. Faith is freedom, and God wants to set us free.  God sent Jesus to set us free.

I want to ask, do you feel free?  Is our church free to be the church God needs us to be?

We all have prisons within us, and God is hammering at the walls to set us free.  Then we all have a part to play in setting prisoners free from their prisons, to be God’s agents in giving reconciliation and hope and forgiveness.  God, working through this Church, and through our faith together, can change the world.  One conversation at a time, one cup of coffee at a time, one family, one home at a time in Manheim.  One prayer at a time.

Nelson Mandela’s cell – Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, South Africa. CN – 2006.

After the evil of apartheid, Nelson Mandela became president in the first fully democratic election in South Africa in 1994.  Until 1990, he had spent 17 of his 27 years in prison living in an 8 x 8 foot space – no bed, just blankets on the floor.  Behind gates and walls and guards, laying on that floor, he dreamed of a new South Africa, and a new life for his people.

Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us. It’s in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Prayer

Lord, there are so many places around the world where there is a thirst for freedom, freedom from so many prisons.  And we are thirsty too, Lord.  We need You, too, right here in our homes and in our communities.  In our own church family, we have all kinds of needs.  There are many that are facing serious physical problems and they need Your healing touch and Your touch on them emotionally and spiritually – to encourage and keep them strong.  Some are facing financial challenges and they need Your direction and guidance right now this week.  Answer prayer for them in special and definite ways.  And, Lord, for each of us, look down inside and see there the hurts and feelings, the discouragements and frustrations and all the ways we need You.  Meet each of us at the very point of our need today. We give ourselves to you knowing that you are setting us free, even as we pray.  Amen.

1/15/2017 Sermon – Starting Fresh #2: “Letting Go”

This series is called “Starting Fresh.”  Clear the decks; look at your spiritual habits so that you can embrace a new idea when God sends one along.  And, I have to admit that for myself, it’s a hard thing to do.  I don’t know when it started, but at some point, I began to develop some very strong habits.  At home, there are things I do in a particular order each day.  Mostly low impact stuff; it’s not just about eating breakfast, getting cleaned up for the day, etc.  It’s the way I do each of those things. The precise order.  And I’m kind of rigid about it.  How about you?

If you were told that you need to include a few new things in order to live a much healthier life, could you?  Not easy, and I am there with you.  Let’s go deeper.  Can the church include a few new things in order to live a much healthier life? Are we free enough to do that?

For the next few weeks, we’re using the Book of Galatians as a point of reference for our fresh start.  If there was a key verse from Galatians to remember, a kind of summary, it might be this one:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

Jesus would love for all of us to experience our relationship with him as freedom, as in, having been set free.  Free of the chains and shackles and limitations of life.

Last week, we heard Paul tell his story of being changed by Jesus when he met him on the road to Damascus.  He was transformed from the violent, Christian-hating guy he was into one of the most fearless Jesus-believers who ever lived.  The reason he told the people of the churches of Galatia this story is that they need to understand that it’s a relationship with the real, living, risen Jesus that gives life meaning, not the rules of religion.

We all nod our heads in agreement with this.  But this isn’t a simple thing, and in a minute, we’ll hear a different kind of story about a church hero who made a huge mistake.

Pisa, Italy. 2000 – CN.

I’d like to talk for a few minutes about the mistakes people make – blunders.  If you do a computer search for “blunders,” you find all kinds.  Military blunders (like Picket’s charge at Gettysburg), automotive blunders (have you heard of Volkswagen or Takata?), or construction blunders, like the recently built elementary school in our own town – torn down and now being replaced because of an engineering flaw).

Sometimes mistakes are intentional, sometimes unintentional.  Sometimes, blunder-mistakes can cost people their lives, and that’s no small thing.  In some situations, doing nothing or not doing the right thing is a mistake.  Maybe you’ve been deeply hurt because of someone else’s mistake.

The news is always full of human blunders of one kind or another.  We all have been affected by blunders and if we are brave enough, we might admit that we have all made them at one time or another.  Some are easier to survive than others and all are part of human life.  They all help us realize how much we need God and God’s forgiveness.  We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

Paul wrote to the Galatians to describe a mistake another church leader made…

Galatians 2:11-16 But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 

Obviously, Paul was pretty upset.  Peter made a blunder, and was confronted by Paul.

Repentance of St. Peter by Jose de Ribera (17th century).

That’s St. Peter, the Apostle Peter.  Peter is a classic example of what God does with those who believe.  When Christians talk about Peter, even in a “St. Peter at the pearly gates” joke, it’s always with a certain amount of awe.  The Catholic Church has a foundational belief in Peter as the leader of the apostles.  And he really was a major reason the church grew during its early years, or I should say, his faith, was one of the major reasons.  His historical image can be bigger than life.

But the real life Peter made mistakes.  Big ones.  Blunders.  During the Easter time, you hear about what Peter did when Jesus was taken away to be tried.  When asked whether he knew Christ – he denied him three times, and then as the gospel of Mark puts it, he had a breakdown (14:72; “wept”)

This is one of the reasons I believe in the truth of scripture.  I think that in those early years, Peter must have been aware of what was being written and he probably said, “You leave that story in there. It’s true.  I did it.  One of my biggest regrets; a real blunder.  I was a coward.  I could have stood up for Jesus and I didn’t.  He was standing right there and I denied him.”

But if you read the gospels to the end, you find that the risen Jesus also came looking for Peter to forgive him (John 21) and give him a mission to accomplish.  “Care for my sheep,” is how he put it.  This is why I’m convinced that Christ comes looking for all of us, especially after a blunder, and sets us on our feet.  He says, “I don’t have a problem with you, why do you have a problem with you?  You’re forgiven; now let’s get to work.”

But even after that forgiveness moment with Christ, Peter wasn’t done making blunders – and learning from them.  In the Book of Acts (10:34-43), Peter preached a sermon about sharing faith with Gentile believers, people who were not Jewish.  Peter was literally told by God to share his faith with anyone and everyone, and Peter preached that he had been given this mission.  And then comes this moment in Galatia when Peter holds back from hanging out with non-Jewish people when Jewish people are around.  A little hypocritical?  He was undermining the faith of these new believers by his example, by trying to keep everybody “happy.”

Saint Peter and Saint Paul by Jose de Ribera (c. 1616).

Maybe telling this story seems like hanging out dirty laundry and that Paul was being a whiner.  But the reason it was important for Paul to share this stuff with the Galatians was because these folks had to know that there were no strings attached to their faith.  It was a free gift of God.  Folks, all you’ve ever had to do is believe in Jesus.  Even though the apostle Peter behaved this way, it was no reason to become Jewish or start substituting rules for faith.  It was also a good teaching moment.  Even Peter can make mistakes.

I wonder if you can picture that confrontation.  To make his Jewish friends happy, Peter has stopped eating with the non-Jews.  I think we’ve all done things – or not done things – at one time or another because of what people might say. Peer pressure, right?  It also has to do with prejudice.  Peter was giving into the prejudice he had been preaching against.

Legend has it that Peter and Paul were in prison together in Rome at the end of their lives, and that they were both executed for their faith at about the same time.  So Peter made good on the mission that Jesus gave him, and he and Paul worked it out.  Paul, after all, is the one who wrote, “Love is patient and kind…”  And Peter had to learn to live with the fact that Paul could occasionally be edgy and confrontational.

When you make a blunder…

  • Acknowledge it. Understand that we are all part of humanity, we all blow it and can’t learn from mistakes if we ignore them.
  • Confess it. Confession might be the one thing that might be missing from the way we live our faith.  Say it to God and someone else.  Verbalizing makes it real.
  • Face it. Accept the consequences.  It’s not possible to learn from mistakes if you refuse to walk through the pain of consequences.  Make amends when it’s possible to make amends without causing further damage to someone.
  • Get over it. Forgive yourself.  It’s important to realize most other people are not thinking about you – they have their own problems to deal with.  It’s hard to remember, but life goes on.  Realize that there a lot of other things to do with life besides think about your blunder.  God has a lot of important things for us to do together, no one else can do them, and they won’t happen if we can’t forgive ourselves.  We are all a work in progress.  This cross is a sign of the forgiveness that’s already ours though Christ.  Your confessed mistake, can lead to someone else’s victory – and your own.

Prayer

Lord God, we are aware of the mistakes of others; when they happen we like to watch, and pretend for a while that we don’t make mistakes of our own.  We know that even your apostles had issues with each other, they had things to work out.  We know that through history the church split and split again. We are difficult people!

But you continue to love us; to care for us, you patiently teach us and work to bring us back together, because you see in us something that we cannot even see in ourselves – your son Jesus living though us, the hope of the world.  Call us back to a place where we see your picture of us as your children, children you love deeply. Give us this big picture and create in us a desire to heal our hurts together. And when complete healing is not possible, God, let us move forward without resentment, agreeing to disagree. With faith in your risen, living son Jesus we pray.  Amen.

1/8/2017 Sermon – Starting Fresh #1: “A Life Worth Living”

Yesterday, I asked my computer, “What is the meaning of life?”  The computer voice said, “According to a reliable source, the answer is 42.”

I have to say that I was looking for more guidance than that.  Then I found out that it was a line from a book.  It was a joke.

Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”

Maybe a clearer question is, what makes life worth living? Do you have an answer for that?  Maybe more than one answer? Only you can decide the answers for yourself.  I would hope that as you listen to God’s Word in worship or read it on your own, and allow God to give you the eyes of faith, life will have much more positive meaning than you ever could have created for yourself, on your own.

I really do believe that God doesn’t think much about calendars – that’s what we do – but a new year is a great point in time to start fresh.  Sing a new song as the psalms say.  Allow God to begin new things.  Time to take a step back from your life, from the things you do, the way you think, and ask what do I love, whom do I care about, how can I nurture the gifts God has given me?  Grow the seeds!  Bloom where you’re planted!  This series is called, “Starting Fresh.”

For the next few weeks, we’ll be using the Book of Galatians as a point of reference for our fresh start (we’ve got a Wednesday night bible study looking at Galatians).  If there was a key verse from Galatians to remember, a kind of summary, it might be this one:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

Christ would love for all of us to experience our relationship with him as freedom, as in, having been set free.  Free of the chains and shackles and limitations of life.  As you’ll hear, he also means freedom from the slavery of Religion.

Too many people have thought of the Christian faith as a dense structure of rules, and instead of experiencing the enormous, amazing love of God, faith becomes a burden.  Every organized group of Christians has to watch out for this.

When Kathy and I were first married, we did church-shopping as a lot of people do.  One church we went to gave us a flyer with a list of 19 rules to follow in order to be an effective Christian.  The one I remember was about not wearing jewelry (re: 1 Timothy 2:9).

It’s so helpful to look at the example of the Galatians and to learn from what Paul is saying to them.  What is the freedom?  What is the yoke of slavery?  Have you ever felt like your life has a lot of rules?  Probably when you were younger.  Have you ever experienced a moment when you felt free?  What was going on that made you feel like that?

To get the most meaning out of what Paul says, we need a little background.

Galatia is not a town; it’s an area in the middle of what is Turkey today, kind of like a state.  It was part of the Roman Empire and a lot of their cities were Roman colonies.  This is not what we call the “Holy Land” and Jesus never went there.

When you find the map of Paul’s missionary travels, all those lines show how Paul traveled through this area, town to town,  talking to people about Jesus and watching the Holy Spirit begin to live into people’s lives. Transformations were taking place.  Churches began to thrive.  People were finding the kind of freedom that faith brings. They were turning away from the Roman gods and the temples the Romans built.

Then, after Paul had gone through this place introducing people to Jesus, other preachers came.  These were Jewish Christians – don’t forget that the first Christians were Jewish, as were Jesus and Paul.

These new preachers gave the Christian message a different twist:  Galatians, God will fully accept you if you follow Jewish traditions, if you follow the Jewish rules.

Israel was the geographical birthplace of faith in Jesus, and these people were trying to be messengers from the “home office” of Christianity.  After what he’s seen and heard, Paul needs to write to all the churches of Galatia.

Galatians 1:11-24.  For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia,22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus – Caravaggio (1600-01)

People, in spite of what you’ve heard, being Jewish will not help you.  Following the rules of that religion, or any religion, really, will not help you.  Just as you cannot replace God with a lifeless statue, you can’t substitute a relationship with the living Jesus with religious practice.

Then he tells his story.  Now, Paul wrote much of the New Testament – deep things that have given so much meaning to Christian faith for so many people.  But whenever he is in a moment when he needs to preach and explain the power of God in Jesus Christ, he simply tells his story.

In a nutshell: “I hated Jesus and whoever believed in him.  Then I met him.  He changed my life, and now, Christ gives my life purpose.  If you believe, the same thing can happen for you.”

Paul was changed by Christ and talked about it.  He tells his story. This is so important.  Four times in the New Testament he tells his story of being a vicious Christian-hater whose life got completely reversed. God has a huge thing to teach us here.  When you are wondering to yourself, what could I possibly have to say about the Christian faith to another person, tell your story.  Most of us don’t have a dramatic moment like Paul, but I believe everybody has something to say.  My story is not like yours. I believe there is someone who needs to hear it.  Maybe the whole church needs to hear it.  The most basic foundation of life, a life worth living, is fueled by faith in Christ.  Every believer has a story.  You have a story!

I have often heard someone say, especially when they find out what I do for a living, “Well, I just don’t believe in organized religion.”  I used to say, “I understand what you’re saying; it can seem like a lot of burdensome expectations.”  Now I say, “So you like disorganized religion.”  Then, if there’s a chance, I tell them my story.

I was an aimless art student who met Christ while praying in the middle of the night.  It took a little time, but he changed the path of my life.  That I am here telling you this is no small miracle.

Why are we together?  To believe, to share faith, and to let Christ set us free.  Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  (John 8:32)  The truth he is speaking of is himself.

More next week!

Prayer

Lord, sometimes we are just like those lost people escaping Egypt, escaping slavery.  Like them, we feel like need an easy God, a god that makes more sense for this world we live in.  Then, when we lose our love for the temporary things, we make rules for ourselves, sometimes lame New Year’s resolutions, sometimes rules we follow as if they were religion.  But we know that we are just trying to find our way to you, and the void are trying to fill can only be filled with you.  You know the way forward when we are lost.  You know us better than we know ourselves. Give us faith that teaches us you are the foundation on which we stand, and although things around us seem to be changing all the time, nothing changes with you.  We each give ourselves to you; we give our church to you.  Lead us to the people you want to meet and the places we need to go. Amen.

1/1/2017 Sermon: “Looking for Jesus”

Christmas celebrates the fact that God came to live with us, and we have traditions to help us remember important facts like that.  Which Christmas tradition actually has a connection (in scripture) to the night when Jesus was born?

Christmas tree

Advent wreath

The date – December 25

The wise men

Santa Claus

The shepherds

The drummer boy

(Just the shepherds and the wise men)

Did the shepherds come to a stable or to a house?  (stable)

Did the wise men come to a stable or to a house?  (the wise men came separately to a house; we don’t know that there were any shepherds around for the visit of the wise men)

How old was Jesus when they got there?  Christmas cards show the wise men around the manger of the baby Jesus, but they apparently didn’t arrive until Jesus was one or two years old.

Now, this is the story of how God came to save you and me.  God sent Jesus on a rescue mission.  It’s important stuff!  But we’ve heard it so many times, we’ve probably lost touch with how crazy it is that the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the World would be…

  1. born in a stable to peasants.
  2. the first people to know what this meant were other peasants taking care of sheep a few miles away.
  3. some of the next people to know were traveling aristocrat-types from another country.  This is their story:

Matthew 2:1-12.  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Have you ever had a moment when you said to yourself – and to God – “Wow.  I did not see that coming!”  Then you look back and you can see the purpose in that thing that happened.  Months or years later, with the wisdom of time, you begin to understand what God was doing.

For centuries, the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah, a savior, but Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.  The birth of Jesus was not even close to what the Jewish people expected of the Messiah.  We are so used to hearing and reading about it we don’t see the comedy.  This Messiah comes as a baby?  Not an eight-foot tall superman throwing lightning bolts around?  And who tells the people their Messiah has come? Luke says it was shepherds – peasants; nobodies out in the fields watching sheep.  Not priests or religious people.  Not the religious professionals you’d expect to know such things.

The way Matthew tells the story, it’s these people he calls “wise men.”  Let’s think about the wise men.

The Greek word for what we are calling “wise men” is Magi. “Magic” comes from this word.  These men were magicians in the ancient sense of magician.  Do you remember Merlin the magician from the story of King Arthur?  Merlin wasn’t a magician (to us) as much as a scientist, and that is how we should think of these people: scientists who studied the stars for their meaning, and were able to tell by looking at the stars that God was doing something unusual.  They could see signs in nature that God was up to something.  And where were they when they saw these things?  Maybe in Persia (Iran), 750 miles away.  (There’s a story that when a Persian army was destroying Bethlehem 600 years after the birth of Jesus, they spared the Church of the Nativity because of the artwork showing the wise men dressed in Persian clothing).

So, who does God announce the birth of the Messiah to?  People who could afford valuable gifts.  Foreign scientists from another religion, another place, a place that was really far away.  They had to really want to come to this place.  What’s God showing us?  This Messiah is coming to save the world.  The world is looking for a savior, and God uses people you would least expect.  The Magi looked for Jesus, because the stars told them this was somebody who was worth finding.  And to be with the Son of God they were ready for a long, hard walk.

At the end of the story, maybe you remember the other foreigner who understood who Jesus was.  The Roman centurion standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus said: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”  (Matthew 27:54)

But remember that there were other people looking for Jesus, too. Jesus had a price on his head from the beginning.  Herod the king looked for Jesus because he wanted to kill him.  He could only see Jesus for what he might take away: the power, money, and influence of being king.

As you hear the story continue, between King Herod and the Crucifixion, there are a lot of people who either want to touch Jesus… or kill him.  I think a lot of people still fall into one of those two categories:  loving or hating Jesus.  Loving him for what he gives.  Hating him for what they think he might take away.  Maybe just trying to ignore him.

We don’t always realize it, but we look for Jesus all the time.  We look for Jesus everywhere.  It’s about filling that God-shaped void you’ve probably heard about.

Cape Town, South Africa. CN – 2006.

We look for him in some of the things we take to make us feel better, or the maybe things we drink too much of.  We look for him in the money we think we need and the things we buy once we get it.  We look for him in grades at school.  And relationships with others. We probably don’t always think that’s whom we’re looking for, but it is.  We look for the one who can take the edge off of the hurt inside; the one who can bring peace and forgiveness when all we see is stress and confusion.

It’s an inner conflict, a paradox.  We know we need him, but most of the time, we hope he’s in his place: over in that old brick building with the steeple on Main Street.  Is that where we keep Jesus?  Maybe in that dusty book over on the shelf.  That’s the safe Jesus.  We’ve got a separation of church and state, so we know he’s not in any of the schools or government buildings.  Or is he? I think that if this is somebody who rose from the dead, he can be anywhere he wants to be.  But I think the way we do religion tends to keep Jesus predictable.  In a box.  Our problem is that we think God only does safe, predictable things.

This is the powerful, life-changing Jesus who does unexpected things.  This is the Jesus who would eat dinner with anybody, anywhere, no matter what was in their past.  This is the Jesus who would touch anybody, no matter what was wrong with them.  This is the Jesus who would go to anybody’s house, no matter what they believed.  This is the Jesus who loves the world.

This is the Jesus who said,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  Matthew 28:19-20

People are looking because they’ve heard that this is the Jesus, who can fill our souls when we talk to him and trust in him. This Jesus who is alive right now and can use our church to change lives in Manheim.  Even us.  Not what we would expect.  He’s not pushy; he waits for an invitation.  And if we have faith, if we believe, we step out, nobody will have to look very far to find Jesus.

Prayer

O God, surprise us with yourself.  You can create life and move mountains.  You can change hearts and change lives.  And our hearts are so empty without you.  We come to you to be filled.  We trust in you.

As you fill us with your Spirit, help us see your world as you see it, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.  Take us beyond the little chores and distractions we create for ourselves.  Help us truly love peace and hate conflict.  We give the new year to you, and pray that throughout 2017 each of us lives a life that truly reflects our faith in you.  Amen.