sum of the sermon: it comes down to a simple choice, really

 

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another … If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10.23-27)

Andy and Red were up against it; they had their backs to the wall. They’d recently learned that one of their best friends, Brooks, had killed himself. Hopeless, he had hung himself.

And though neither Andy or Red ever mentioned the word, hope is what they were talking about. Specifically, what a person does – and does not do – as a result of having hope, or not having it, in their life.

The difference between them was that though both were imprisoned, only one of them was imprisoned in mind. As Andy saw it, the only thing keeping him from freedom was made out of stone. Red? He was so shackled the only thing left for him was to find the will to use a rope. Just like Brooks.

But Andy? Andy had hope. And so, he scratched his way out through stone walls and filth. How he perceived his future powerfully impacted what he chose to do with his present. He chose to hope, and so he chose to do. And so, stone walls wouldn’t – couldn’t – contain him.

“It comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy living or get busy dying!”

You probably recall that scene from the movie The Shawshank Redemption. This month is that movie’s twentieth anniversary (hard to believe, isn’t it). And so, let me ask you …

What do you believe? About your future? About hope? And what you’re to be about in the here and now?

Do you have hope? Vibrant, living hope? A hope you simply cannot leave behind? A hope that spurs you on to do what you can with today? For your own blessing and the blessing of others?

If you know Jesus Christ – truly know him – you don’t merely have hope. You know him as your hope. He is your hope. He is your all. Every day. He is what gives your life meaning.

You could no more turn your back on him and walk away from him than Andy Dufresne could have given up his dream to live in a place with no memory of all wrong and his daily toil to get there.

Know this kind of hope; come to know Jesus Christ. Know him as your Lord – as your daily hope – and he will be your Savior. Take on his mind and ways, and he will become your way to freedom. In this life, and in the one beyond. For no walls, made of stone or perception, can restrain him. Or you in your life with him.

Choose him. Choose life. Every day of your life. For today. For the sake of your future. For him.

It will make all the difference in your life. And in the lives of many a Red Redding.

Get busy living.

sum of the sermon – love is a battlefield: being strong in the Lord (4)

In the ancient world as described in Scripture, it was a common thing for rulers or kings to erect an image or statute of themselves in the distant realms of their domain. Rather than merely feeding the ruler’s vanity, these images served important purposes. They were erected to remind the people there, most of whom would never see him in the flesh, who it was who provided for them and protected them. The image reflected his likeness and depicted some of the qualities that he not only saw himself embodying, but those who wished to see imitated by his people (i.e. – confidence, strength, looking to the future, etc.).

This image/statue – an obvious, constant, physical combination of reminder and reflection – stood out to all who encountered it as a representation of the ruler/king. He was not to be forgotten and his representation was statement of his “presence” over, and among, his people. He had expectations for them to live up to – and he to them – and these expectations were rock-solid, like the image/statute itself. His rule concerned things important to his people’s well-being and his people were to support him well in the way they represented him with all their actions.

And so, when the story of how the living God made humankind and set them in the midst of his creation, it is revealing to see God use this very same language of imagery. Literally.

“… God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.27)

God made humans as a representation of himself. Being a reflection of the Creator’s character and abilities, their role in creation was to function as reminders of the Creator and his ongoing work; though we do not see him, he is here. Humans were to represent the Creator and Sustainer God well in their dealings with all that is creation, as well as in their dealings with each other.

We know the story, though, don’t we? Quite personally! We did the unthinkable – we rebelled against our God and in so doing, we defaced his image in us. As we filled creation with violence and selfishness, our ways did little to remind people of the only good and benevolent God. Since our ways did not reflect his ways, our representation of him was warped and twisted; we gave people the wrong impression of what God is like.

But, good and merciful God came into our midst and, rather than wiping us out, he came to rescue us from ourselves. In doing so, he, in effect, delivered us and created a new humanity – a new representation of himself – through the work of his Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

What an awesome God!

And so, this is where we stand today. We who follow Christ today are the new humanity, created in Christ to represent God afresh to all of creation. This work of his in us as humans is more wondrous than his first work, for we know our reflection of him now represents his redemptive work of grace and mercy on a whole new scale.

To be sure, it’s still a battle. Our false expectations all too often remain with us. As does our temptation. And on ears hard-of-hearing, his instruction comes. But, in Christ Jesus – as Christians – we set our face to the task at hand – to belong to our God and to represent our God like never before. We are determined to do so, and enabled to do so, in our spirit and ways:

As … God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. (Colossians 3.12 J.B. Phillips)

As he spoke us into being in the beginning – and afresh in Christ – we pray that our very words reflect God’s good character and timing:

Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I … am responsible for getting out. (Ephesians 6.19)

For we now know who and what we are in Christ – as one of God’s special messengers to us put it succinctly:

… we are ambassadors who represent Christ. (2 Cor. 5.20a)

And this we shall not forget again – nor shall we let the world fail to see – Christ living in us.

So go, and be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power!

Amen!

sum of the sermon – love is a battlefield: be strong in the Lord (3)

 

This is the essence of my sermon this morning.

Read Scripture. Often.

Not merely to read, but to hear God. Not merely to hear God, but to trust him. Not merely to trust him, but to do in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ. Not merely to do in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, but to love God and others with the love his Spirit has poured into your heart. Not merely to love God and others with the love his Spirit has poured into your heart, but to revel in the hope you have in Christ your Lord. Not merely to revel in the hope you have in Christ your Lord, but to place your life in his hands and find your peace in him. Not merely to place your life in his hands and find your peace in him, but to know God and love him all the more.

Meditate on Scripture. Constantly.

sum of the sermon – love is a battlefield: be strong in the Lord (2)

 

“Well now way back in the Bible, temptations always come along. There’s always somebody tempting, somebody into doing something they know is wrong. Well they tempt you, man, with silver, and they tempt you, sir, with gold. And they tempt you with the pleasures, that the flesh does surely hold. They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple, but man I ain’t going for that. I’m goin’ for the …”

Perhaps you recognize those lyrics. They make up the middle verse of the song Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springstein.

Or maybe you recognize those lyrics because that’s the song you sing every day. Every day you’re goin’ for the ________ (you fill in the blank).

This is part of being human, a fallen being, isn’t it? No responsible person gets a pass. We all are tempted in many ways and at many times. Sometimes blatantly; sometimes with subtlety. But, as Christians we know, no matter in what form it comes to us, we’re called to:

… be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Eph. 6.10)

We know what our Lord expects of us regarding temptation. His special messenger to us, James, puts it concisely and with some serious motivation for us:

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1.12)

The question now, of course, is how to resist temptation. How to be strong in the Lord by turning away from darkness and toward light, toward him.

James doesn’t leave us wondering. He laid out a captured copy of our Enemy’s battle plans against us and spread it out on the table for us to see. Here they are … with his word of warning to us at the end:

… one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved. (James 1.14-16)

We need to take a good, hard look at what’s being said here. If we’ll do so, we’ll find a great deal of help for us to be “strong in the Lord” in our resistance of the darkness that would have its way with us.

Do not be deceived. Keep a good look out. And as you do so …

Look within. That is, take note of what you desire. Just because you desire something doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. What is it you desire to think, say. or do? Why do you desire this? Desire isn’t temptation, and neither desire or being tempted is sin, but we know sin starts with both. Desire coupled with temptation just might not be a green light to go for it, but a flashing warning sign that says: “Bridge Out! Dead End.” So look within and then pray honestly to our Father regarding your desires.

ook ahead. Have you got so caught up with seeing only what’s right in front of your hood ornament that you can’t see down the road? Think seriously about where your desire could lead you. Could it lead you to a place you never would have dreamed of going and would never have wanted to visit? Choices and decisions made in the moment can have huge consequences, consequences that could domino and pile up on you. So, determine to take the long view and allow that to help guide you in the here and now.

And by all means, look beside you, for beside you is Jesus Christ.

… I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age. (Matt. 28.20)

Remember he’s right here with you. He knows your desires. He know what is tempting you. He knows the suffering temptation can cause within you. And he’s here to help you to be strong.

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2.18)

Go now. Go “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

sum of the sermon – love is a battlefield: be strong in the Lord

 

Most of you have probably seen the videos that have gone viral of late of people accepting “The Ice Bucket Challenge.” It’s a gimmick to raise awareness of – and funds for – the fight against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known to a previous generation as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I accepted the challenge – dump a bucket of ice water on yourself – and I’ve set aside a contribution to the ALS Association. I challenge you to do the same (at alsa.org).

But this morning I challenge you to consider what it means to “be strong in the Lord.” For that is precisely what each of us here is called to become. “Strong in the Lord.”

Just what does that phrase say to you? What image does it conjure up in your head?

Let’s ask the person who first used it: an apostle of God. His name was Paul. And when Paul thought about “being strong in the Lord” his mind instantly went to an image of war. (Eph. 6.10 NRSV) It’s an image of a soldier fully equipped to do battle with the enemy. (Eph. 6.11 NRSV)

Being “strong in the Lord” is deadly serious business; it’s a battlefield!

In that sort of scenario, you are, if nothing else, fully-focused. There are things you just don’t do (like carry things you don’t need). And there things you do no matter what (you “behave appropriately”). cf. Rom. 13.12b-13a NRSV. For it goes without saying: it’s a matter of life and death.

Now let me ask you: how do you picture yourself when it comes to being “strong in the Lord;” when it comes to your engagement in spiritual warfare?

I can’t see your answer, but I can relate to you what I sometimes hear.

“I want to be strong in the Lord, but I’m just not feeling it. I want to be spiritual and I start out doing well, but I seem to quickly fizzle out. What am I doing wrong?”

Does that sound like you? What it looks like is hand-to-hand combat and the battlefield is your mind. God has put his Spirit in us to permeate our mind and work out his will in this world. However, our enemy, Satan, opposes God and us. His plan of attach is to reverse God’s intended nature of things by using the world and its ways to impact us sensually, taking control of our mind and dominating our spirit. The contested ground, the ground where the battle will be either won or lost, is in our mind.

Through the years I’ve had occasion to talk with combat-hardened veterans of military service. Sometimes I’ve asked them what being truly ready for battle is all about. More often than not they do something like this (“tapping their head”) and say something like “keeping your head in the game.”

One time, I had a young veteran – one of the current generation raised on video games like Call of Duty – look me right in the eye and say:

“They lied to me. There’s nothing quick, easy, or fun about killing a man.”

I’ll leave it to you to sort all of that. Including what all that young man must have wrestled with (and still does).

But I think what he said nailed it. It comes down to what we’re thinking and our expectations. Make no mistake about it: our part in the battle – the fulfillment of our duty to God – will be won or lost in our head.

“What am I doing wrong?,” you ask.

It’s likely the way you think about things. Or more precisely, the way you don’t think about your expectations.

How many of us have been duped by the Devil to think our maturity in Christ can, and will, come quickly? How many of us live under Satan’s deception that being a Christian is supposed to come relatively easily? How many of us have been deluded to believe – and diluted in our faith – to suppose that life in God must be fun?

I tell you the reality of it is more like the difference between the look in the eyes of the fresh, new recruit who has never “seen the elephant” and the eyes of the battle-hardened veteran who has seen it all … again, and again, and again.

I challenge you: name one thing that’s solid and central about Christian faith that happens “quickly.” There’s nothing there. It takes time. A lot of time. A lifetime.

Precious little – if anything – about believing, truly trusting God, is “easy.” Faith is “the proof of what we don’t see.” (cf. Heb. 11.1b CEB) What, pray tell, is easy about that?

And “fun?” While joy is certainly part of the fruit that God’s Spirit grows in/on us, that word was never intended to carry the full freight load of what it means to follow after God and his will. If so, someone forgot to tell our Lord, our mentor, our model, the Man of Sorrows. No, strong Christians make use of all the colors in the box, not just happy yellow. They can, and do, “weep with those who weep” and they can, and do, grieve over their sins.

“What are you doing wrong?” It’s likely a matter of the battle going on in your mind. You have a set of assumptions and expectations that have no place on the battlefield, and you’re in the Army now, mister; get your mind right!

Put on the full armor of God! Every day the sun comes up is a day there is an enemy at the gates and evil in the air. (Eph. 6.13 NRSV) Gear up with faith in God, hope in Christ, and love by the Spirit. (1 Thes. 5.8 NRSV) Your life – and the lives those around you – depend on it. And march into battle with the assurance that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, will see us through to our destiny with him, in him and for him. (1 Thes. 5.9 NRSV)

Who today will take up the challenge? Who will get their mind right by turning a deaf ear to the Devil’s propaganda? Step right into the ranks of the legions who call Jesus “Lord.”